If you haven’t already bought IQ’s recently-released “The Road Of Bones” here’s a public service announcement:
MAKE SURE YOU GET THE BONUS DISC TOO!
CD1 is absolutely stonking (that’s British for ‘good’,) and while most ‘bonus’ discs are rarely a bonus (instead usually filled with oddities and detritus) IQ has actually released something that’s absolutely the opposite.
I consider the The Road Of Bones bonus disc (bones disc? – hur hur!) to be absolutely essential listening. It’s difficult for me to understand why this wasn’t released as a double album – there’s so much top-notch material on these 2 CDs!
For GBP4 on top of the single CD (which is selling at GBP10) you get the bonus disc too. You won’t regret it!
Get it here.
Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!
Indeed, what music they make!
The highest accolade I can grant music I adore is to lovingly transfer it to my car’s MP3 player and then purposely drive to work during the height of rush hour, thereby being left alone with it for extended periods of time at a blistering number of decibels.
And that’s precisely how my Thursday morning went.
IQ has gone back in time, finely minced up all of its previous material, strained out all the dull bits, distilled the concoction, added many tricks and traps, clicked the heavy button, and produced a breathtaking piece of work.
So does the above suggest there’s nothing new to listen to here? Well, a lot of it will be familiar territory for IQ fans…but that’s why we’re fans…right? And there’s still plenty of new stuff going on, and new approaches to old stuff, and old approaches to new stuff and…oh I’m sure you get the point!
To (mis)use a food analogy, this is IQ steak tartare. All flavour, no filler, and no buggering about with stoves.
For you vegetarians there’s no analogy that could possibly apply so I’ll just move on.
In line with most of IQ’s material, things are pretty downbeat thematically. The title is the first clue that this isn’t children’s party music (unless you really don’t like children, in which case it could be kind of fun to play it at volume 11 outside a kindergarten.) The Road of Bones is the Russian Kolyma Highway, built by political prisoners exiled by the Stalin regime between the 1930s and 1950s. Nice chap. Thousands died during its construction – not exactly bright and breezy subject matter. Slavery, mental illness, relationship breakdowns and violence all make an appearance in various guises, producing some dark moments that make this release all the more effective, moving and somewhat disturbing. The album artwork sets the scene for what’s to come.
First, the rhythm section is absolutely on fire! Tim Esau’s bass work is superb – punchy, intricate and up front in the mix – just the way I like it! There’s also a ton of bass pedals, which gives proceedings an immense kick in the low frequencies…so to speak.
Paul Cook’s drum work provides a solid backbone on every track, with fewer intricate and noodly distracting flourishes than on previous albums. This is a good thing.
This album has been variously described by some of the Big Big Train Facebook group stalwarts as ‘synth-heavy’ and I’d have to agree. Neil Durant has done a great job on keyboards. There’s some powerful stuff here, with bass, synths and guitar producing walls of sound that are simply irresistible.
Michael Holmes is in great form as usual, although there aren’t as many standout solos from him as I’d like. But he’s ever present alongside Tim’s bass doing the heavy stuff, and he gets a chance to let loose on plenty of occasions with some soaring work. I always enjoy his playing, and he has certainly added plenty to the atmosphere of this album.
Peter Nicholls’ voice is like my loudspeakers – great when driven hard. On previous albums I’ve not been so keen on his quieter vocals but at higher energy levels there’s a howling edge in his voice that always brings chills. Thankfully the vocal energy across the album is high and he hits the mark (and my spine) many, many times, and even in the quieter moments he still sounds damned good.
The album was recorded and engineered at Rob Aubrey’s Aubitt studios in Southampton, and Rob’s engineering wizardry is once again very evident, bringing a nicely-expansive sound that, to my poor tinnitus-damaged ears, makes the most of the band’s extensive talents. I’m a sucker for bass, and it’s positioned right up front – what’s not to love!
Much of the album is very percussive – there’s always punch in various forms (all good) and even the quieter material has a real presence to it. Expect to uncontrollably tap your foot in the ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’ manner that only a true prog fan can muster.
Time signatures are (as is mandatory for IQ) extremely variable throughout. This makes the punchiness even more fun and appealing, and I defy you to resist headbanging at the heavier moments – but only when nobody’s watching, of course.
So here goes – a brief review, including the bonus disc, that you can still buy here in case you forgot.
Tracks – CD1
From The Outside In
Opening with suitably-spooky atmospheric synths and a special guest appearance by Bela Lugosi (isn’t he sounding well?) things soon get going with some solid pumping basslines backed by synth flourishes and Peter’s voice cutting through it all. There’s more atmospherics to come, before a return to the pumping rhythms. A great opening track. But wait, there’s more…
The Road Of Bones
A slow-burner this one, opening again with synths and piano. This is a particularly haunting track, and Peter’s lyrics and vocals are astounding. “For now the need is met, I almost hate myself. Almost. But not quite.” And cue the slow, understated bass-driven buildup to an eventual and very welcome musical kick in the face.
You’ll find this track on IQ’s website.
I was fooled by this track the first time I heard it. The first couple of minutes I found pretty uninspiring, but during its nineteen minutes it morphs several times through much more interesting territory, and ends up going all over the place quite brilliantly. This is actually quite common right across the album, which is what makes it so appealing. There’s always something unexpected around the corner.
One of the less-energetic tracks on the album, there’s power, warmth and intricacy that carries it along quite nicely to a satisfying conclusion.
Until The End
Another stunner, starting slow with plenty of atmospherics, eventually getting going with synths taking centre stage, giving way to Peter’s vocals with some great bass work around the 7 minute mark and a storming performance by all personnel, coming to a very poignant piano and acoustic guitar-led conclusion.
Tracks – Bonus Disc
And on to the bonus disc. You need to own this! Did I mention you can get the 2 CD release here? I’m sure I did…
This is the first of many excellent reasons why you should get the package including the bonus disc. A brooding combination of drums, bass and synth open, cutting to acoustic guitar and Peter’s voice. And then all hell breaks loose. Play it loud, people!
Hateful, vengeful numbskull.
This one starts off with some very triumphant and very nicely sampled orchestra and choir, and then immediately dives into the sort of complex IQ rhythms that we know and love – it always puts a big smile on my face. I defy you not to play air drums! This track’s an instrumental, and while I usually prefer my songs to come with a big dollop of lyrical goodness, this one just keeps me wanting more.
Electronic rhythms open this one, making it sound rather intriguing right from the first bar. There’s a feeling of frantic energy, which eventually moves into something less so, but once again eventually more epic territory via a brief-yet-urgent (and great fun!) mid section.
Fall And Rise
Fall and Rise is the only song that doesn’t sound immediately to me like IQ, and while I love their signature sound, there’s no harm in moving in a different direction. So after all that punchy heaviness of previous tracks, this one features fretless bass, acoustic guitar, gentle synths (and is that a banjo?) and a much smoother, yet no-less fun ride. Think Japan and you’re not a million miles away.
Ten Million Demons
When I first heard this opening I was reminded of….well every song Muse has ever recorded. I considered that a black mark, but thankfully things very quickly turn a corner and transcend the aforementioned unmentionables, becoming another really solid tune with a great, chugging bassline, once again full of atmosphere and surely ending with a delightful nod to
T Rex? (Actually it’s Chicory Tip! Thanks to Stephen Pieper for the correction!)
More punch for the final track, starting slightly weird and ethereal, but then grabbing you by the ears, with stabs of synth over a bouncing bassline, into a quiet passage and we’re into long instrumental territory. A nice, if somewhat subdued way to end the second disc.
I am a big fan of IQ’s past material, but the consistently high quality of every single track across 2 CDs makes this their strongest release to date.
Finally, a small challenge to you, Dear Reader. Given the second CD is a bonus disc, how would you re-sequence both CDs to create a classic double album?
Best answer gets my undying admiration.