Review Summary: Dark Matter is an intresting release that falls nothing short of what connotations people have with the word 'progressive'
Many progressive rock bands get overshadowed by larger and/or more commercial bands in movements made toward a specific subgenre. Case in point is what has become a listener’s obsession with metalcore, and although admittedly in my opinion not all of it is bad but made for the wrong reason. Music should be made from a musician’s desire to create and express without worrying what people will say or think about it; music shouldn’t be about trying to make the top 20 or anything like that, just being an individual. After gaining an experienced musical palette, I doubt that many would still find the same enjoyment in generic radio music. Regardless of all that, IQ have stuck to being themselves even if that has meant not having everyone recognize their name. Although I have only recently become a fan of IQ’s music, I hear some great musical ideas that make me smile.
…Which brings me to IQ’s 2004 release, Dark Matter. Ironically the album isn’t overly dark, but just has a great atmosphere of prog, color, proper instrument playing, and exciting compositions. In music, less-is-more is something that really can have multiple applications, such as the number of tracks on an album. When I bought Rush’s Hemispheres, I knew that although there were only four tracks on the album, they must be good – and I was right! There are five tracks on Dark Matter, two of them being epic-length prog pieces, and all reveal a unique flavor and mindset when listened to a few times. Dark Matter will be decent on a first run-through, but to truly get your money out of it, listen to it until the light bulb comes on (it will if you like progressive music).
On this album, IQ is:
• Peter Nicholls – lead and back vocals
• Martin Orford – keyboards, backing vocals
• Mike Holmes – guitars
• John Jowitt – bass, backing vocals
• Paul Cook – drums and percussion
IQ overall has a sound that screams influence from other 70’s progressive bands as well as trying to add a new touch to certain things. The compositions display a good amount of theory and ability to move through intricate time signatures. For example “Sacred Sound,” the album’s first epic track, opens with a series of legato chords played by the keyboard’s string section setting. Beginning in F# minor, the same progression gradually ascends through the first four notes of the F# major scale with each scale degree becoming the tonic for that series of chords. It ends in a C suspension just before breaking into the real key of most of the rest song: F. That is seriously some great stuff to listen to, just for the new compositional ideas not to mention the great execution by the band mates.
Keyboards as a whole are a great part of the album and really give the band’s sound a lot of drive and forward motion which, being essential elements of jazz, are essential elements of progressive rock. From the opening of the first track, the listener is bombarded by the many abilities of IQ’s keyboard section. In the third track, “You Never Will,” around 3:10 the keyboard breaks into a synth solo which is one of the keyboard highlights on the album along with the 6/4 solo in “Harvest of Souls.” Martin Orford displays a great choice of tones throughout the album, whether being organ, piano, synth, or other sound effects. Overall, keyboard adds so much to the music that when listening to albums with lighter usage of keys they’re completely put to shame. I sense that possibly some Genesis influence was involved here.
Bass and drums also do a great job of holding their own on this record. Cook has some tasteful fills and a few good set-ups to go with the band’s hits. Auxiliary percussion also is a nice touch and adds some sophistication and some texture to different tracks. Instead of beating his kit to death, the drummer has realized that, once again, less is more and musical is better than technical. John Jowitt shows versatility not in just the different feels and styles that the ensemble goes through, but also different tones which the bass is capable of. Bass is not a trebly, twang-fest anymore but actually an instrument with its own place in the mix. On “Red Dust Shadow” he even pulls out the vocal-esque fretless and digs in. On other songs he also demonstrates classic rock tone for all of you traditionalists out there. Not to mention he experiments with pedal effects – that’s right, pedals are no longer just for guitarists (they never really have been, but…)!
Which brings up guitar; the guitar in IQ is well-used and isn’t overpowering as it is in most ensembles. It is simply enough to deliver added contrast, melody, and the occasional solo, such as the one in “You Never Will.” Vocals for the most part are decent in a prog rock kind of way. Look at The Mars Volta or Mastodon, classically trained vocals are clearly not the emphasis. One comment (mentioned later as well) is that since harmonized vocals add such a nice polish to the band’s music, why not make a little more use of them" With a little extra harmony, they would be less of a back seat feature to the album and maybe would even seem a little less nasal. Maybe I’m just too used to all of the things that Steve Wilson does with vocals, but a little extra pizzazz to spruce up these plain vocal melodies wouldn’t hurt, especially being a progressive band.
Although track-by-track review aren’t so great I have learned, I wanted to take time to dissect the last, epic finale of the record: “Harvest of Souls.” A pretty, major guitar riff opens this track with vocals: a rather effective duo. This combination continues for a while before some light background string effects and brief wind chimes enter. Chorus effects from the keys eventually bring it more into the foreground of the sound. Then at around 4:15 the rest of the band enters and continues in the old-time, laid-back feel of the song stated earlier. After a militant snare drum roll and warped vocal effects, the song starts to get good. A new section of the song beginning around 6:20 reminds me a lot of Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise.” At least this 7/4 section is admittedly pretty sweet even if it does a great job of citing influences. The keyboard adds a lot to this section, as does the bass with great mid-range growl and pedal effects. Near the nine minute mark, the song takes another turn with piano, sweet vocals, and great harmonized guitars. Emotive feel from the bass and drums, just how progressive rock should be. Shortly after the eleven minute mark, the ensemble dives into a great, organ-driven section which alternates between a bar of 5/8 and a bar of 6/8. Asymmetrical time signatures are one of my favorite parts of progressive music and this is no different. Eventually the band is only playing in 5/4 and the end of this section is heralded by some great diminished chords and tritone guitar work. Space effects give way to some quarter note piano chords and a vocal melody. Auxiliary percussive effects here are a nice added touch, as is the counterpoint dotting of the guitar in the background. Arpeggios on the piano and ambient vocal melodies lead the band into a new feel around 15:30. Then a cut time feel settles in and guitar melodies are a powerful introduction to yet another well-done vocal segment with string sounds from the keys in the background. Slightly before the eighteen minute mark the band changes into a great, original 6/4 feel which eventually becomes the underlying ground for a pretty decent synth solo. In the next section I really dig the octave effect on the vocals and the tone of the organ (I think it might be called farfisa but I’m unsure). Angelic, major chords break out at 21:10 and then harmonized vocals enter after a guitar melodic fragment. Harmonized vocals work so well for this group that I wonder why they chose not to make a little more use of them. A guitar solo over the major chord progression fades out and ends this epic track. Great chart in true progressive style!
I recommend this record to fans of any kind of progressive music at all, as it really is quite good after you take time to soak it in. I’m definitely anxious to get my hands on another IQ release, as I only wonder how their other albums compare with this one. Support a lesser known band though, and at least give one song a download; I recommend certain parts of all of them.