Round Table Review
IQ - Dark Matter
Tracklist: Sacred Sound (11:40), Red Dust Shadow (5:53), You Never Will (4:54), Born Brilliant (5:20), Harvest Of Souls (i. First Of The Last, ii. The Wrong Host, iii. Nocturne, iv. Frame And Form, v. Mortal Procession, vi. Ghosts Of Days) (24:29)
Introduction by Mark
A quick quiz. How many bands manage to maintain a consistent quality over all their albums? Right, take it one step further: - how many bands who have been in existence for approaching a quarter of a century have continued without noticeable dips in the quality threshold? Precious few eh? Now here's the clincher, how many such bands are still producing albums that not only maintain the quality of previous releases but actually surpass them? The list is undoubtedly small, but one band that securely fits the bill is English prog stalwarts IQ. Subterranea (1997) set a bench mark for the resolutely independent band, one that many, including some of the group, thought would be hard to top. But then came Seventh House (2001) displaying a rather more mature level of writing and proving that progressive bands can actually progress. Now, three years on, we are faced with Dark Matter.
Mark: From the opening synth chords of Sacred Sound, it is plain that Martin Orford has played a bigger role in the writing and arranging of Dark Matter. At the time of Seventh House, IQ's keyboard player was busy with his solo album and with the various other music projects he has to involve himself with in order to survive as the group's only professional musician. This time round the timing was more fortuitous and Martin stamps his presence across the album employing a wider range of keyboard sounds and samples than on previous albums. Sacred Sound is classic IQ, the interplay between guitar and keyboard that defines the 'IQ sound' is in full evidence; some of the linking sections between verses are reminiscent of earlier times but it is more referential than palimpsestial. Keyboards really dominate this song, including a few bars of a wonderful sounding organ prior to the guitar solo.
Ed: The album opens with an instant classic. Sacred Sound is one of those typical IQ album openers that immediately makes you enjoy a new release and therefore compares well with Darkest Hour and Wrong Side of Weird. As with those songs this tracks also consists of an opening and closing section based on an energetic rhythm and melody, while the middle part is a more ballad-like, moody affair. And there's good news for the Wakeman fans as well since the track features a church organ solo. Early in this song a real characteristic of the Dark Matter album becomes apparent: the keyboard sound. Most of the keyboard sounds Martin Orford has chosen for this album have a real retrospective feel. Think Hammond, Mellotron and other typical seventies goodies. The combination of these retro sounds with the crisp production and sound effects give the songs a very modern feel tough, instead of making them sound outdated. Sacred Ground also contains one of those fine Jowitt-Holmes duels with John playing a pumping bass part while Mike performs a roaring guitar solo.
Bart: From the first notes of Sacred Sound it becomes clear that IQ's little venture into more
contemporary music styles, like they did with The Seventh House, was
short-lived. With the new album they immediately hark back to the classic IQ sound which we've come to love so well, and which I found seriously lacking on The Seventh House.
Martin Orford is the big star on this song, creating solid soundscapes - mainly on church-organ - and plays solo after solo. This is not to say the rest of the band has to be ruled out though, Mike Holmes plays his usual melodic guitar solos, Pete Nicholls' imaginative lyrics are sung with beautiful and often catchy melodies, and as for the rhythm section, Paul Cook's drumming is at its best here and he very well complemented by John Jowitt on bass.
But as I said, this is mainly Martin Orford's song, as he just seems to be everywhere - church organ, more church organ, lots of church organ, Hammond organ, flutes, mellotron, sound effects... oh, and he does the occasional synth solo as well!
A terrific album opener which sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Red Dust Shadow
Mark: Red Dust Shadow takes the mood down with a very plaintive acoustic guitar laid over stark keyboard chords. Reminiscent of some of the more reflective pieces on Ever, this is probably one of the most emotional pieces in the IQ repertoire. Sung and played with real feeling the piece stands out because of its relative simplicity.
Ed: This song was played live in 2003 several times and I have to admit that I liked it but didn't find it all that special back then. The CD version however features lots of interesting effects (echoes, distortion, etc) on the vocals giving it that extra bit of atmosphere that was missing in the live versions. The song is basically a ballad with rhythm guitar, vocals and keyboards while the rest of the band kick in during the bridges. For some reason the first verse reminds me a lot of some Porcupine Tree song, but I can't put my finger on which song it is. The delicious fretless bass at the end of the song is worth mentioning as well.
Bart: A very nice acoustic guitar tune with a very accessible vocal melody, that is the way Red Dust Shadow starts. It starts as an emotional ballad with some delightful guitar (both acoustic and electric) and halfway the full band comes in and it turns into a massive prog rock song with dark guitars and a menacing organ. This part of the song draws influences from Genesis, Pink Floyd and 10CC, but most of all it sounds like an IQ song. And a great IQ song with that too!
You Never Will
Mark: A clicking clock provides the percussive introduction to You Never Will but is soon drowned out by John Jowitt's crisp bass riff that recurs throughout the song. Some energetic drumming from Paul Cook leads into a quieter keyboard section, the lull before the storm, as the ticking clock reappears, its stopping signalling the unleashing of an explosive maelstrom of guitar and keyboard.
Ed: The ticking of clocks announces You Never Will. This is probably the 'difficult one' on this disc. It's got lots of great stuff, including a fine bass line, interesting drum effects, good lyrics, great melodies and fine breaks. Still, the whole combination somehow falls short a bit. It's not a bad track, but certainly not the best song on the album. Maybe the sound is just a bit too massive, the drumming a bit too much over the top and the arrangements a bit too bombastic to really make this one an easy digestible tune. Martin Orford's amazing keyboard solo in the second half of the song is worth mentioning though.
Bart: You Never Will is a bit more a poppy song, with a seemingly simple verse-chorus structure. It is probably the weakest composition on the album, and mainly because of its unfinished feel. Some of the transitions from one theme to another seem too abrupt and the great synth solo by Martin Oxford is somewhat ruined by the counter-solo that Mike Holmes plays at the same time. It just sounds too chaotic really.
Mark: Born Brilliant Claims the plaudits for the most interesting track on the album. With incisive lyrics from Peter Nicholls, who has laid aside obscurity for once, and a rhythm that harks back to The Wake, the song contains a plethora of sound effects, that enhance the bare bones of the song. With phased guitars and mellotron choirs, Born Brilliant takes IQ in a new and interesting direction.
Ed: An interesting and, as far as I'm concerned, a very successful experiment. Born Brilliant starts with machine-like sound effects and a throbbing sound. Spooky keyboard soundscapes and slide guitar conjure up more references to Pink Floyd, almost making this IQ's version of Welcome to the Machine. But then suddenly the pumping bass line kicks in and makes this track, combined with the venomous lyrics about a very unpleasant person, very biting and aggressive. As such, this tracks is to Dark Matter what Erosion was to Seventh House. The bass line, consisting of the characteristic IQ combination of one note in two octaves, drives the song forward to the climax of roaring guitar and effects. Splendid song with great lyrics which really make me curious whom it's all about. It's about a person who is the scum of the earth, but when compared to the person he's referring to at the end of the song who's from a 'family of brilliant liars' he's at least honest. The song ends with a sound clip from the moon landing: 'We came in peace for all mankind'. My guess: Sadam versus Bush.
Bart: The only time on the album that IQ takes a little venture into less well trodden tracks is with the song Born Brilliant, but do they really? It starts with a dark keyboard/bass rhythm that is best described as a cross between Floyd's Welcome To The Machine and Vangelis' soundtrack to The Bounty. Pete Nicholls recites the lyrics in a monotonous way, with a distorted voice, however, just when you feel the track is a really odd one the oh-so familiar IQ rhythm kicks in and we're back with standard IQ-fare. Not that it's a bad thing though - in fact it is a great track and my only gripe would be that the music is slightly on the slow side which gives it a bit of a monotonous feel, though it suits Nicholls' singing perfectly.
Harvest Of Souls
Mark: No matter what the first half of the album contained, there is no doubt that the major focus would fall on Harvest Of Souls. At 30 seconds short of 25 minutes, it is the longest track IQ has ever recorded. And, it has to be said, this is the sort of thing IQ do best. Where some other bands set out to write an epic track as it is the 'progressive thing to do', IQ seem to fall into these things quite by accident. By amalgamating different pieces of music and not ever knowing quite how the combination of pieces should naturally end, IQ's long-form tracks grow, almost organically, into a whole. The innate skill of the band is to link the various sections and wrap the whole piece in an arrangement that allows the piece to flow naturally. To go through the piece section by section would be rather pointless as the composition needs to be heard in its entirety to reap the full benefit. Needless to say, there is something to satisfy everyone. The crystal clear production by guitarist Mike Holmes allows each instrument to be easily identified in the mix, even during solos. Simply stated, Harvest Of Souls is an easy contender for the title of fan's favourite.
Ed: Crikey ! A 24 minute epic. I'm always a bit doubtful about these long tunes. Sure, some of the best prog classics are long epics, but certain bands seem to think that having a 20+ minute epic on an album is a must, resulting in songs that could have been better if they'd been seriously shortened. Some tracks on the new Marillion album Marbles spring to mind, as well as some of the Spock's Beard tour de forces. And to be absolutely honest, one of IQ's own epics, The Last Human Gateway, is a bit too repetitive for my taste and also contains a weak section or two (blasphemy!). Nevertheless, they have also shown to be able to write top notch epics in The Enemy Smacks, Further Away and (last but not least) The Narrow Margin. Well, rest assured that this new 'longie' has the same level of quality, balance and diversity as those songs.
Harvest of Souls actually consists of 6 separately named sections (First of the Last, The Wrong Host, Nocturne, Frame and Form, Mortal Procession and Ghosts of Days) most of which break down into two or three sections again creating a real multitude of different and recurring melodies and styles. The flow of the whole piece and merges between the various sections is excellent, making it a good example some of the aforementioned bands should study to know how to really compose an epic.
In the early years many people have compared IQ to Genesis and to be honest I never really noticed such a resemblance. Sure, the music had the same style but the performance and delivery by IQ was very different. Now, with Harvest of Souls, I hear a clear Genesis influence for the first time. The way the epic is built up (semi acoustic opening and reprise), the choice of keyboard sounds, the individually named sections and the Mortal Procession section which clearly resembles Apocalypse in 9/8 all point towards the mother of all epics: Supper's Ready. So Harvest of Souls is to IQ what Grendel is to Marillion and Supper's Ready to Genesis. And I personally haven't got any problem with that whatsoever. As a matter of fact, this song sounds to me like the perfect blend between Supper's Ready, Yes' Gates of Delerium (the wackiness and chaotic war sections in the Nocturne section) and IQ's own Narrow Margin.
Ghosts of Days (4 min) is one of those typical IQ climaxes comparable to those of Gateway and Margin. As in those songs we return to the earlier melodies. In this case those of the The Wrong Host and Frame and Form sections which Mike plays in a delicious combination. This guitar solo continues for a while after Peter has sung his last two verses and finally fades away. Very emotional, think the end section of Came Down to imagine the feeling. Another instant classic !
Bart: It seems that more than a healthy dose of prog clichés apply to this IQ album, and the mother of all clichés is saved for the last song: The best song on the album is an epic.
In this case it is also the longest epic they've ever done, clocking in at over 24 minutes, and not a single minute seems superfluous. Furthermore, what really strikes me with this song is that though the so-called 'neo-prog' bands that emerged in the mid-eighties all seemed to be heavily influenced by Genesis, this is the first time that IQ really sounds like that seventies' giant. The acoustic guitar, backed with washes of mellotron during the First Of The Last part sounds eerily like some of the work on Selling England On The Pound and of course the Mortal Procession section is more than a tip of the hat to Apocalypse in 9/8 from the Genesis magnum opus Supper's Ready.
But the song contains a lot more. First of all the great lyrics deserve a special mention. Criticising America, without taking a political stance. You can pretty much read into the lyrics what you like, as it can be explained either way. It was explained by Martin Orford that this was very deliberately done as not all five band members share the same viewpoints on the world's currently most talked about nation.
Secondly there is the great music. Naturally a 24 minute epic is far too much to be described in detail, but all the separate sections are terrific compositions. I dare say that this is the best song the band has ever recorded. There is literally never a dull moment.
Mark: IQ have produced yet another fine quality album. Everything about it is of the highest order, the writing, playing, singing, production, art work and lay-out defy the limited budgets that are available to the band, they have even encased the album in a slipcase that shows off the, rather disturbing, artwork to full effect. I am one person who thought that Seventh House would be hard to top, rating that album as one of my favourites of all time. However, I can honestly say that Dark Matter is every bit its equal and, as a complete package, possibly even its superior. I urge you to buy this album and hear that I'm right!
Ed: All in all another excellent release from the boys in IQ, who prove that it's better to run a part-time band and release a quality album every 3 years than trying to make a full time living off music and release too many dodgy CDs. All of the musicians are really playing outstanding performances on Dark Matter, while Paul Cook's drumming, Martin Orford's choice of keyboard sounds and Peter Nicholls vocals, who continue to improve, deserve special mentioning.
As we've come to expect this new album is nicely packaged with a 16-page booklet featuring photographic artwork by Tony Lythgoe in the same style as the Subterranea and Seventh House booklets. It even features one page with Peter Nicholls artwork and an alternative IQ logo (different from the one on the cover which resembles the logo used in the early nineties). One thing which escapes me though is the necessity of one of those carton slipcases around the jewel case. A waste of money with no added value whatsoever since the slipcase does not feature any different artwork. For the rest this album sets a high standard for any other band trying to win this year's DPRPoll ;-)
Bart: I wasn't all that impressed with IQ's previous effort The Seventh House, and was even less impressed with the following concerts and the whole IQ20 tour, which in my opinion focussed all to much on their latest album, rather than their impressive
back catalogue. And for a band like IQ, which only releases an album once every three or four years, such a disappointment can be fatal. Fortunately for them, I seemed to be part of a minority with this feeling and fortunately for me, IQ went back to their 'roots' and created this masterpiece which will definitely end up high in this year's poll.
If there is one point of criticism I have to give on this album it is the fact that they seem to be using the same type of rhythm for each song. The band openly admits they prefer to play music in 6/8 or 7/8, though in my opinion there is no need to use the same, characteristic rhythm with the double snare drum on the last beat over and over again. There are already so many IQ songs which contain this very same rhythm, and with four out of the five songs on this album containing at least one section with this beat it is a bit overkill. But having said that, an IQ section never maintains the same rhythm throughout, so therefore the repetitive use is not too disturbing, and for most people it will be more a point of recognition.
Speaking of which, recognition is probably the best word to describe this album, because, of all things, the music on this album sounds mostly like IQ. By going for the typical IQ sound and not worrying too much about trying to be innovative the band have created a very accessible and instantly likeable prog album, which, considering its dark subject matter (pun intended), is quite a feat in itself. Highly recommended!