Review Summary: Neo-prog legends IQ return with a spirited and powerful release which draws heavily upon themes of melancholy and desolation.
The neo-prog revival of the mid '80s spawned a number of acts in the UK who endeavoured to bring the sounds of early Genesis up to date with an injection of earnestness and a shift towards more melodic sensibilities. The standard bearers for this new wave of theatrical and introspective progressive music were, of course, the Fish-led incarnation of Marillion
. But among their face-paint sporting cousins it was certainly IQ that made the most impact with their bleak ominous style and unerring sense of drama. In fact IQ probably came closest of all the neo-prog bands in capturing the subtly unsettling qualities of Gabriel era Genesis, exemplified by their 1985 album 'The Wake'.
'The Road of Bones' is the 11th studio release by IQ and its title refers to the M56 Russian Kolyma Highway which was built by political prisoners of the Stalin regime of the USSR between the 1930s and 1950s. The road is regarded as a memorial to the unfortunate souls who died during its construction whose bones were laid beneath or around it due to the permafrost not allowing graves to be dug. With such a deeply troubling theme for an album title one might expect dark and melancholic music and that is generally the case on here. While not reverting completely to their austere and foreboding sound of the early '80s there are more elements of that style evident on here than any of their work since the aforementioned 'The Wake'.
IQ have always been a largely keyboard driven group and strong minor mode symphonic textures dominate much of the material, especially on the longer pieces. The music is also markedly heavier, in places, than anything they have done before with the denser arrangements profiting greatly from the meaty production. This dramatic and more intense approach works well on a number of the tracks, notably the 19 minute plus centrepiece 'Without Walls'. This extended piece doesn't reveal it's true character from the outset and elects to lull the listener into complacency with a soft heartbeat and lilting piano melodies. However, the true character of the piece explodes further in with doomy chugging riffs, grating off-kilter organ fills and the sort of menacing synth and mellotron swells that have become a trademark of their more sinister sounding escapades.
The band released a number of largely forgettable albums during their middle years, at least for anyone who doesn't warm to polished progressive music with overtly commercial tendencies, and this aspect of their music does drag the album down in a few instances. 'Ocean' is a case in point with its inoffensive rolling arpeggios, forgettable vocal lines and formulaic synth melodies. The dreamy 'Fall And Rise' is another of the more mellow and tuneful offerings but in this case the band manage rather better in achieving enough pleasing melodies to prevent the song from descending into anonymity. But IQ are at their best when there is a mysterious and foreboding edge to their music and thankfully these particular qualities dominate the bulk of the material. The chilling atmosphere of 'Ten Million Demons' finds them discarding all pretentions of winsomeness and here they somehow manage to successfully build a soaring and compulsively addictive song on top of an inherently tacky rolling synth motif. In fact the main accomplishment of this album lies in how IQ manage to take many aspects of the styles they have exhibited throughout their long career and meld them seamlessly into a satisfying whole while still maintaining a modern edge.
After listening to this, some IQ fans may still hanker for an approach which even further embodies the dark and ominous cutting edge of their earliest work. 'The Road of Bones' is, of course, far more polished than their early material and weaves a much wider sonic tapestry but there is a sense that the band are inadvertently holding back from fully embracing the darkness on occasion. Nevertheless, this is a superb and largely consistent album which demonstrates that IQ still sit proudly near the top of the contemporary prog pile.