23 June 2009

CD REVIEW: IQ, Frequency (2009, InsideOut)

Serious change has been afoot in the IQ camp. After years of service, long-time IQ drummer Paul Cook left the band in 2005 following touring for their 2004 opus Dark Matter. Andy Edwards, who had formerly worked with Robert Plant among others, was deputised in, and appeared with the band for their North American dates. Following the touring cycle, the group convened to begin work on their follow-up release. Shortly after, Martin Orford also decided to part ways with the group he had been a member of since the very beginning. His spot was filled by Darwin’s Radio keysman Mark Westworth, and the band resumed sessions for the release that would become Frequency.

It’s hard to compare this release to previous IQ albums; it holds so many of the familiar signposts that mark it is IQ music, yet in many ways this is a rebirth of a band that has been around for nearly 30 years. Mark Westworth adds a different orchestral voice to the band’s sound, while Edwards is a different drummer than Paul Cook was; not better, not worse, just different (of course, the circle turns, and on tour for Frequency Edwards will be replaced by Paul Cook, as Edwards is taking time off for personal reasons). Peter Nicholls’ voice is a constant, and he’s in fine voice throughout. Mike Holmes has always been a hallmark of the band’s sound, almost more so than the keyboardist (somewhat unusual in NWOBPR bands), and his playing is as incisive and cutting as ever. John Jowitt continues to produce as well…considering how many bands he is in, it is amazing he hasn’t simply run out of notes to play, or fingers to play them with, but his bass work here is as energetic as ever.

You want epic? IQ gives you epic on their opening, and title track. Some sampled radio chatter leads into a huge opening, with plodding, almost martial drums and guitar meshing with lengthy mellotron chords. One pictures some monolithic, massive thing moving inexorably forward, crushing all beneath its feet. The song does not remain thus for long, and some dynamics come in to play. Nicholls is in fine voice, and “Frequency” gives everyone a chance to step into the spotlight for a monent. Of note is the song’s closing moments, which offer a bit of a preview of the massive “Ryker Skies” to follow later on the album.

Gentle piano introduces “Life Support,” rising from the silence that followed the epic closing of the album’s title track. One might be expecting a quiet IQ ballad here, and one would need to be forgiven for that assumption. While we get 2 minutes of piano and Nicholls vocals, things shift massively 2:30 in, as the rest of the band decides to get into the mix. Long suspended notes hang like power lines as the band creates some sublime intensity. Jowitt’s bass notes pulse, Edwards’ drumming is nearly perfect, and Holmes and Westworth channel Steve Hackett and Tony Banks respectively as they trade off expressive guitar and keyboard solos.

While it’s far from the longest piece on Frequency, “Ryker Skies” is perhaps the epic to end all epics here. The song is massive, intense, builds throughout, with fantastic playing and singing from everyone in the band. You wouldn’t know it from the opening moments, filled with gentle singing and guitar playing, but when it hits, it hits with the power of a wall of bricks stopping a car going 60. I can’t pick a highlight here…the vocals and melodies, the sustained guitar lines suspended like eerie cellos, the orchestration…everything fits here. Pre-echoed in the final closing moments of “Frequency” several tracks, ago, “Ryker Skies” is the song I come back to time and time again on this release.

At over 13 minutes, “The Province” is by far the longest track on Frequency. Mike Holmes opens things up with some quiet picked guitar, Nicholls jumps in with quiet vocals, and Westworth adds some subtle keys underneath to richen the palate somewhat. The fast/heavy sectionthat rises from the pastoral opening at 2:30 is mind-blowing, and comes close to surpassing some of the band'’ most intense moments to date; I won’t say that this is IQ doing prog metal, because it certainly isn’t…but maybe some prog metal bands could take a lesson in how to create intensity from listening to how IQ does it.

IQ closes out things with a gentle, poppy, yet expansive track in “Closer.” This is a summer song for sure, filled with bright instrumental colours, light playing, and a positive, happy vibe throughout that really eases things up after the darkness and heaviness of “Ryker Skies” and “The Province.” “Closer” shows that IQs music, and prog in general, is not entirely about bombast and how many notes can be jammed into each moment, but about the playing of musicians with each other, creating intricate and beautiful music that evoke and mirror every side of human emotion. “Closer” is a brilliant closing track, offering a glimpse of light after the darkness.

Unlike the previous Dark Matter, Frequency does not offer up a single massive epic on a similar scale to “Harvest of Souls.” Most of the tracks fall comfortably in the six to nine minute range, with two mini-epics of 10 and 13 minutes respectively adding the length many prog fans long for in compositions. This is a boon for the band; the songs seem more tightly composed and to the point for their relative brevity, allowing room for development while keeping things tight enough to not slip away.

Is Frequency a stronger album than Dark Matter? No. It’s a different album than Dark Matter, and it is all the better for it.

01. Frequency

02. Life Support

03. Stronger Than Friction

04. One Fatal Mistake

05. Ryker Skies

06. The Province Of The King

07. Closer

Peter Nicholls: vocals

Mike Holmes: guitars

Mark Westworth: keyboards

John Jowitt: bass guitar

Andy Edwards: drums

1 comment:

Brian Z. said...

Given the many ways our tastes diverge, I find my opinions of this album interestingly similar to yours.

Good stuff that I listen to with great, ahem, FREQUENCY. (Couldn't resist.) Believe it or not, it's a fine "working out at the gym" album. (So, surprisingly, is echolyn's mei, but that's a different story...)

I also hear some similarities between "Life Support" and other IQ second tracks like "Erosion" and "Fading Senses". Wonder if there's any hint of a "track pattern" such as Metallica had going on in the mid-80s...