IQ - _Frequency_
(Inside/Out, 2009)
by: Noel Oxford (8.5 out of 10)
IQ have always attracted comparisons to the heavyweights of 1970s and early '80s progressive rock, and not simply because of similarities in sound, but because they've always had the chops to truly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers. A persistent career spanning more than a quarter of a century, spent chiefly in the margins of the mainstream, has produced nine albums with much to recommend them, but it is undoubtedly in IQ's fin de siècle and post-millennial output that their strongest material is to be found. _Frequency_, the latest album, is no exception; it may not be the essential IQ release, but it's a worthy addition to any prog fan's catalogue.

The record's two-year genesis has been attended by numerous personnel shifts, including the departure of keyboardist and founding member Martin Orford (replaced by the eminently capable Mark Westworth), and the return of original drummer Paul Cook for live duties, taking over from Andy Edwards -- himself only a fairly recent drum stool recruit -- whose frenetic and consistently inventive stick work underpins the entirety of _Frequency_.

But if the line-up changes have affected the band internally, the record gives no clue. The eponymous opener marches out from amid radio chatter with a punishing bass-heavy riff, Mike Holmes' guitars thickened with mellotron, twisting and flowering into a bright, up-beat midsection. Running with the same theme, the thudding, menacing groove of "Ryker Skies" bestrides the record as a contender for its standout tune, but it is the epic "The Province", clocking in at close to 14 minutes, that proves to be the true heavyweight here, alternating between sublime, contemplative placidity and frantic, impulsive double-time galloping, all awash in a choir of synthesiser.

Elsewhere, things are perhaps less exciting, but remain compelling nevertheless. "Life Support" treads a familiar soft-loud-soft dynamic path, but beneath a howling guitar line, Edwards' skittish cymbal work dovetails into John Jowitt's swaggering bass, keeping things effortlessly interesting. Ten-minuter "Stronger Than Friction" seems initially to be punching beneath its weight with a straightforward pop sensibility, but mutates at the six-minute mark into a beast of quite a different stripe, and boasts some of the most unusual vocal work that Peter Nicholls has yet produced. "Closer", the record's finale, is a more gentle, less gripping affair, but caps the work nicely. The only weak link is the unflattering ballad "One Fatal Mistake", bogging down the middle of the record in a piano-thick MOR quicksand. It's nothing more than adequate, although relatively brief, and it undeniably makes for a valuable contrast with the more energetic songs here.

On the whole, the album hangs together less successfully than some of IQ's previous works, and in particular 2004's _Dark Matter_, lacking the relentlessly bleak and esoteric gothic core that drove that record to the status of masterpiece. But if _Frequency_ suffers for the contrast, it's only because it's an unfair likening, of the sort that has defined the span of the band's entire career. It may be a poisoned chalice for IQ that comparisons to acts like Gabriel-era Genesis, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer have dogged them from their inception, without ever bringing the commercial success that might perhaps have been reasonably expected. There's a fine line, after all, between standing on the shoulder of a giant as opposed to in his shadow, and it's not always been clear on which side of that divide IQ belong. Yet as the band approaches their third decade, still consistently producing work that retains a greater capacity to dazzle than anything from their so-called 1980s heyday, the question seems definitively and unambiguously settled.


(article published 4/11/2009)

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