Saturday, May 24, 2014

IQ - The Road Of Bones (Special Edition)

The Road Of Bones (Special Edition)
Giant Electric Pea

I’ve been a fan of U.K. (Southampton) based outfit IQ for some years now, and given how much I loved their last release - 2009’s ‘Frequency’ – and the rather lengthy gap between studio releases (The band has kept fans on their toes with a couple of live albums, a live D.V.D. and a couple of anniversary reissues in the meantime), I was really looking forward to the return of the long running neo-progressive rock outfit.
Returning with their eleventh studio effort ‘The Road Of Bones’, IQ have once again produced another solid release, but one that strangely manages to disappoint as much as it does satisfy. A change within the ranks of IQ isn’t necessarily a new thing for the band, and once again, they have had a change of guard since their last visit to the studio. Vocalist Peter Nicholls and guitarist Mike Holmes are the only surviving members from the ‘Frequency’ line-up, with former members in founder/bassist Tim Esau and drummer Paul Cook returning to the fold. The only new member making their IQ debut this time around is keyboardist Neil Durant, who otherwise came from the instrumental progressive/fusion outfit Sphere3. And while the change in line-up is one of the biggest shake up’s we’ve seen between IQ releases, it has to be said that it hasn’t altered the sound of the band in any way that will have long time fans up in arms.
The first disc of this double C.D. special edition version of ‘The Road Of Bones’ is actually a conceptually based affair. The concept is centred on the point of view from a serial killer on a murder spree. It’s a dark theme, and not surprisingly, that translates atmospherically through to the music accompanying the opening track ‘From The Outside In’. Starting out with atmospheric keyboards and a sample from Bela Lugosi, the song soon falls into a thick guitar/bass driven groove alongside Nicholls’ distinctive melodic vocals. Overall, the song is a darker and heavier take on the familiar IQ sound, which works quite well for the band. However, it has to be said that the stripped back song writing approach does mean that the song does lack a little variation, which does have a tendency to make the song drag a little longer than it should.
Next up is the title track ‘The Road Of Bones’, which not unlike the opener, begins with a fairly gentle No-Man like intro with Nicholls backed with some haunting keyboards. It takes a while for the song’s brooding vibe to build up, but when it does (Around the six minute mark); it does in a huge way. But as good as the song is it’s the same issues that plagued the opener that can be found at fault here. The song is a little on the long side, and the changes in tempo are minimal, which gives the impression that the band has stripped things back a little too much at times.
Clocking in at just a touch over the nineteen minute mark, there’s no denying that ‘Without Walls’ is the big centrepiece of the album. Unlike the two former tracks, IQ do mix things up here, with shades of latter era Genesis heard in the beginning, before delving into heavier terrain in the middle section. Holmes really stands out with his guitar work throughout the song (Bringing to the fore his Steve Hackett influences), while Durant’s diverse array of keyboard sounds gives the song plenty of diverse sounds. Although far from a perfect track (The song doesn’t seem to flow all the time, and it’s still a touch too long for its own good), it’s certainly one of the album’s stronger moments.
‘Ocean’ provides a bit of a breather towards the tail end of the album, and brings to mind ‘Closer’ from their last album, albeit with the full band backing Nicholls’ emotive voice, and perhaps not as memorable on the melody front.
Finishing up the album is ‘Until The End’, which is hands down the real shining moment on the album. It’s on this track that IQ throw everything they can into their song writing, and manage to produce a song that manages to avoid the issues that hamper the bulk of the album. It’s also quite a diverse offering on the sound front as well, with some middle-eastern themes thrown in amongst some early era Genesis influences, while the intro and the tail end is a perfect example of Durant’s contribution to the band’s sound, and how well he fits alongside both Nicholls and Holmes.
As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Road Of Bones’ is an album that both satisfies and disappoints in equal measure. But not in the way you might think, because while I liked ‘The Road Of Bones’, I couldn’t help but feel a little letdown by the album after the brilliance of ‘Frequency’. But here’s the strange part of the equation – I actually feel that the bonus disc is a far stronger collection of songs than the album itself!
The opening track on the bonus disc is ‘Knucklehead’, and it’s possibly one of my favourite songs from either disc. It’s uncharacteristically heavy for IQ, and it works a treat. Nicholls’ biting lyrics and vocal delivery matches the harshly delivered music perfectly, and gives the overall song an intensity that’s rarely ever heard from IQ.
The instrumental piece ‘1312 Overture’ (Which bears its name from its time signature and Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’) is a great showcase of the band’s progressive leanings, and should have perhaps served as the opening track for ‘The Road Of Bones’ in my opinion.
Despite its misleading electronic driven rhythmic opening, ‘Constellations’ turns out to be a seriously strong track that could have slotted onto the official album if it wasn’t so upbeat, while the mellow ‘Fall And Rise’ is another classy effort from the band with its fretless bass, oriental influences and dominant acoustic sounds. But what makes the latter so interesting is that it shows a completely different sound. Needless to say, it’s exclusion from the album is not all that surprising.
Although interesting, ‘Ten Million Demons’ is again an experiment into uncharted sound territory for IQ – but a venture that doesn’t quite work. Somewhere within the Pink Floyd/Underworld influenced track there’s a great song, but it sounds like it needed a little more work to coax it out.
Finishing up the bonus disc is ‘Hardcore’, which is another dark and heavy sounding effort that begins with an almost Porcupine Tree sounding introduction, before finishing up with a lengthy instrumental section that relies more on acoustic atmospherics and a natural flow of different instruments rather than heavy guitar riffs and densely layered keyboards.
Overall, it has to be said that the bonus disc is an interesting addition to ‘The Road Of Bones’, and well worth getting.
In the end, ‘The Road Of Bones’ is a good album, but a little flat sounding. The band’s performance can be faulted, and the production (Handled by Holmes) gives the band their best sound to date. But where the band fails is their unwillingness to broaden their song writing to add a bit of spice to their songs. Instead, ideas are thinned out and stretched, which makes the album sound like its dragging in places, and overly long at times. The opposite can be said for the bonus disc, where most of the tracks showcase a far more diverse array of ideas and sounds – even if sometimes they don’t quite work.
For diehard fans, ‘The Road Of Bones’ will no doubt be a must. But for me personally, ‘The Road Of Bones’ is a little underwhelming after the brilliance of ‘Frequency’.

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© Justin Donnelly

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