Album of the Week 17-2013: IQ – Subterranea

Concept albums are always a tricky affair. When done right, they are genre defining masterpieces and highlights in the bands’ carreers (‘Quadrophenia’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘Operation: Mindcrime’, ‘Brave’). When done wrong, they’re either too low on musical ideas to facilitate the actual story (‘The Wall’) or the story doesn’t add much to the actual music (as is the case with many contemporary Power Metal records). Double album ‘Subterranea’ was therefore sort of a risk for British Progrockers IQ, but they did it to great success: ‘Subterranea’ was their first fantastic album and still stands as their carreer highlight.

When ‘Subterranea’ was released in 1997, IQ already was nearly two decades into their carreer. While they did release some fine albums (‘Ever’, ‘The Wake’ and ‘Tales From The Lush Attic’), the stars never before – or since – aligned quite as well as on this concept album. Maybe the dystopian story singer Peter Nicholls wrote for the album helped the band be more focused, both in compositon and playing, than ever. Many of the songs can be listened to separately and not lose any of their appeal. And that is exactly what is the essence of good songwriting for a concept album.

‘Subterranea’ has some of the hardest rocking tracks in IQ history, which is kind of a surprise with the album following up the relatively mellow ‘Ever’. And definitely, hard driving songs like the album’s title track – which is pushed forward by John Jowitt’s awesome bass lines – that got me hooked on IQ in the first place. ‘Failsafe’, ‘Infernal Chorus’ and ‘Breathtaker’ had similar effects on me. However, it’s IQ’s exercise in dynamics that make ‘Subterranea’ interesting for its full hundred plus minutes. ‘Capricorn’ is a beautiful ballad with one of Michael Holmes’ most beautiful guitar solos, many of the interludes add an intense layer of atmosphere to the album’s feel mainly courtesy of Martin Orford’s keyboards and Peter Nicholls truly makes ultimate use of his range, giving the protagonist color. My only point of criticism would be that closing track ‘The Narrow Margin’ is a bit light for a song featuring a confrontation. It’s there, the confrontational music, it just doesn’t start until nine minutes into the song. It still is quite a nice climax though, coming full circle. Also, the way some themes are reprised throughout the album is very cool.

Production-wise, I have very little to complain about either. ‘Subterranea’ has a crisp, crystal clear sound with a lot of space for every instrument. Also, modern productions have the tendency to put the vocals and drums way up in the mix, but Nicholls is exactly as loud as he should be and Paul Cook’s snares are characteristic, but not dominant at all.

Of course, ‘Subterranea’ had very little competition, but is most definitely the best Prog record of the late nineties. Possibly of the entire decade, although Marillion’s ‘Brave’ (another brilliant concept album) might take that cake. Fact is that IQ made a brilliant Progrock album that underlined, even enlarged their relevance at this point of their carreer. An obligated listen for fans of progressive music. The story itself is cool as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subterranea’, ‘Breathtaker’, ‘Failsafe’, ‘Capricorn’

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