For me, discovering IQ was a little like going on a blind date. The mutual friend who set us up was Big Big Train, my favorite progressive rock group of the moment, and IQ’s one-time label-mate, back in the mid-90s. That association extended to IQ keyboardist Martin Orford producing BBT’s first album (1994’s Goodbye To The Age Of Steam), and seventeen years later guesting on their most recent EP (2011’s Far Skies Deep Time).
Given that connection, and the fact that Orford left IQ in 2008, I chose to start back a ways in their catalog, with 2004’s Dark Matter. The album features Paul Cook on drums, Michael Holmes on guitars, John Jowitt on bass, Peter Nicholls on vocals, and Orford on all things keyed.
The album opens with the energetic 11-minute mini-epic “Sacred Sound,” featuring especially nice work by Orford, who opens things up with a moody little synth vignette that shifts into driving organ line that brings the rhythm section in underneath and propels the whole song forward. The basic theme established here is built upon, shifted away from and returned to several times over the course of the track in true prog fashion. There’s a nice little duet between Holmes and Orford around six minutes as well where they play off of one another smartly.
Nicholls, it must be said, is a bit of an acquired taste as a vocalist. His voice is clean and powerful, but… let me put it this way. While IQ—unlike, say, Styx—is most definitely a prog band, if I had to pick one vocalist whose style Peter Nicholls comes closest to emulating, it would be Dennis DeYoung. He’s got that theatricality to his phrasing, not as over-the-top as DeYoung in his delivery, perhaps, but a definite Broadway flair. The thing is, it’s actually sort of fascinating hearing genuine progressive rock with that style of vocals out front.
The next three tracks clock in around the five- to six-minute range and offer a fair bit of variety. “Red Dust Shadow” opens with a somber acoustic set piece before escalating into power ballad territory for the second half. Not a favorite, but flawlessly played. “You Never Will” is an angry number that opens with some rather Floydian clock noise before Jowitt’s bass and Orford’s organ lead a quick build, setting the rest of the song on “churn.” “Born Brilliant” could easily have been sub-titled “A Primer in Self-Loathing” with Nicholls speak-singing through gritted teeth lines like “I’m selfish and insensitive / I’m rotten to the core / Pretentious and derivative / You’ve seen it all before.” The third and subsequent verses build the tension with Orford’s synths bubbling and whirling around a tight bass-drum figure, with Holmes hanging on the fringes until he steps forward to ride a superb, keening solo to the fade.
Closer “Harvest Of Souls” is a full-blown 24-minute prog epic with all that implies. Acoustic, scene-setting opening section; major tone shift around 4:15 with big keyboards; second major shift at 6:20 to an energetic guitar-bass-drums workout, etc., etc. All in all, it flows well and has some genuinely stirring passages (the 11:00-12:10 jam in particular) that keep the imagination firing to the end.
Once past my initial discomfort with Nicholls’ “Broadway prog” approach to the vocals, I found plenty to enjoy on Dark Matter. Orford, Holmes, Jowitt and Cook are all terrific players who each get their chances to shine here, giving the album a true ensemble feel. If I had to hand out an MVP award, though, it would go to Orford, whose playing is equally compelling and on-target whether he’s on piano, synth or Hammond.
Thanks for the introduction, BBT. We should do this again some time.