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IQ - Subterranea CD (album) cover





3.96 | 613 ratings

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Symphonic Team
4 stars IQ's "Subterranea" is a double concept album that is the band at their most ambitious.

Following up the "Ever" masterpiece is no mean feat so everything is upsized to a whopping running time of 103 minutes. The album boasts some of IQ's longest songs such as the 20 minute 'The Narrow Margin' to close the album off in style, and also has very short tracks edging towards 2 minutes, such as 'Provider' 'State of Mine' and 'Laid Low'. It is an odd album for IQ who are tackling a massive project here with 2 CDs of non stop prog at the end of the 90s (1997) but it is certainly full of some amazing musicianship and compositions. Peter Nicholl's vocals are always crystalline and easy on the ears, and he is joined by legends of IQ, Martin Orford on keyboards, and flute, Mike Holmes on guitars, John Jowitt on bass, and Paul Cook on drums. This is the class act that brought us "Ever" and earlier "The Wake" (though Tim Essau was the bassist on this album). It is not surprising that the album came out with a great deal of enthusiasm by the prog community but I have noticed that in the eyes of many the album failed to deliver, falling just short of a masterpiece, and in fact many were disappointed.

Perhaps more is less in this case and this album suffers the overblown excessive disease of "Tales From Topographic Oceans"-itis. The symptoms of the disease are excessive cryptic conceptual material and songs that are forgettable and get lost in their own overblown structures. This is a real journey and one needs to really put aside a great deal of time to indulge in it and perhaps be in the right frame of mind. It is certainly not an album that will appeal to all but nevertheless is still replete with incredible moments of beauty and amazing musicianship. The concept is hard to grasp but concerns an Secret Underground Lab where scientific experiments are conducted, and the people try to escape to the surface, and get incinerated in the process. One lone man who lives above decides, after a failed relationship, that the world he lives in is far worse and ventures into the underground, but ultimately finds he is the only one there and so is trapped, alienated and alone.

The album is certainly more bombastic than previous material beginning with majesty and pomp with 'Overture'. The clean voice of Nicholl's is heard on 'Provider', followed by the first great moment, 'Subterranea', with futuristic synth rhythms and a heavier guitar phrase on a rollicking beat. The bassline is one of the best from IQ, and I love the upbeat feeling on this. The lyrics are fascinating; "Cadillac, heart attack, back of this beyond, push a king, TV queen, accommodating blonde, a traitors gaze while you wait." The slowed synth interlude brings it to an ambience, before it returns to the cynical lyrics and melodies, "can I hold on, can I belong to all the things you are, there's no sane in, chaos reigns in subterranea." The sax at the end is a sheer delight and this track is a definitive highlight. 'Sleepless Incidental' follows seamlessly with calming vocals, and some great guitar phrases. The keyboard solo at the end is Orford at his best and it is augmented by soaring lead guitars. 'Failsafe' is a 9 minute track with some nice musicianship and then it bogs down with a lacklustre ballad in 'Speak My Name', that lulls me off to dreamland.

'Tunnel Vision wakes me again with the great heavy guitar riff, and more forceful vocals. I like the melodies on this and angular time sigs, leading to glorious guitar soling, with squeals and sustained string bends. The bass pulsates nicely and it culminates in a refreshing synth motif. 'Infernal Chorus' seamlessly follows and builds a strong marching percussion and guitar over synth layers. The sig shifts to accommodate a chugging riff before Nicholl's vocals return; "avoiding confrontation in this infernal chorus, who watches he who watches, no one above suspicion." The song has a magical synth melody that reminds me of Ultravox for a moment. The song stops for a pause and then launches into some killer keyboards, simply stunning work from Orford. The lyrics are surprisingly dark at this point; "I am your murdering angel of death, silently you will provide what I need, give me a focus give me a name, back to your maker and turn to his side, unresurrected and unrecognised." A decent track with some shining musicianship. It ends with a chilling effect like chains dragging and an alien wail. The album is getting into darker territory and we are soon getting conceptually deeper with 'King Of Fools'. The pulsing synth is effective along with rhythmic vocals and ominous key pads. It blends with a heartbeat into 'The Sense In Sanity', tinged with an intro of Oriental chimes that maintain a polyphonic rhythm and synths wash over. Nicholl's melancholy tones are distinct; "Ignited by the realising eyes, unwrapped around the solitary sound, a failing voice, collapsing on the unfamiliar ground, an empty heart am I the only one." The minimalism of a voice and synth works well to break away from the busier soundscape. It merges into 'State Of Mine', with a distorted guitar riff that fades up and louder synth phrases. The instrumental ends the first CD on a pleasant uplifting note.

CD 2 begins with a brief piano introduction on 'Laid Low', with a spacey lead guitar, and then 'Breathtaker' that clocks just over 6 minutes, comes in with more aggressive vocals; "beyond imagination, born of blood and fire, in splendid isolation, I have lived corrupted and inspiring, no longer god's Appolo, no more Mercury, down among the unbelievers," and then an expletive follows and surprised me as it is unlike IQ. This is a raw approach and perhaps as heavy as the band gets at this stage in their career. A tirade of keyboards follows and some thunder accompanies Nicholls next verse. At the end of the song the rain pours down in a stormcloud and the acoustic intro of 'Capricorn' shines through. The lyrics are heard "The night holds a multitude of uncovered sins", and then a wonderful saxophone sound lights up the dark. The music reminds me of Marillion here, and as always the guitars soar to the stratosphere.

The icy winds and distant sax prepare us for the Oriental flavours of 'The Other Side', a brief musical transition of acoustic chimes and bamboo flute. It is a river of dreamy and beautiful ambience, and segues to 'Unsolid Ground'. This track has a steady guitar riff and relaxing vocals, and builds to a stronger beat. It sounds more commercial and straight forward, but I like the lead break and electronic sequenced synths. The album at this stage is bogging down a bit and I needed something more complex and impressive.

'Somewhere In Time' answers my wishes with acoustic vibrations in the intro. The vocals are heartfelt; "on and on want to feel somehow, somewhere in time, you'll see it all the way, what I do now, gives into impulse, reaches in between, gets back a notion, still remembers a dream." The flute work here is really nice and has an Irish feel, and then a sequenced synth fades up turning everything to a futuristic style. Lead guitars blaze through the fog of synths and the beat is transformed to more uptempo. A cool riff locks in for a moment and there is a delightful bassline from Jowitt. The guitar riffs are excellent on this track and come and go until the great synth solo at the end. This is followed by 'High Waters', another piano ballad and it leads inevitably to the massive epic of the album.

'The Narrow Margin' is a 20 minute monster that I was hoping would be as good as other epics I have heard over the years. It begins with an odd percussion and pretty piano runs, and then vocals are heard; "divided by loyalty, surrounded by emotion, nobody under here remembers any mercy at all, we stay down, deciding the borderline, did no one tell you, I couldn't have made you mine, because I feel your pain more than my own." I have no idea what the concept is about but is sounds spiritually linked, perhaps a journey into darkness of subterranean levels of consciousness, and then escaping by a narrow margin. It doesn't really matter, but the music still manages to transfix even at the end despite some lulls in between. At 5:30 a gorgeous lead guitar sound is heard and then a bass heavy beat begins. The song is about to divert into a new feel, and the next verse is even more melancholy; "try to sleep, I will come but I'm still waiting for you, and wherever you are, I'm still inside you now." Nicholls's sings of unrequited love and not being able to hide from his true feelings. He sings, "I could never go back", and a heavier riff crunches in, a more metal approach and it is enhanced with an amazing lead guitar solo. This is a wonderful moment on the epic, and I love the angular riffs, leading to a staccato rhythm accentuated by fast piano runs. The lyrics focus on darker themes; "voices circulating around the musty hall, and the kerosene is ignited, incandescent in the crossfire, do my eyes betray the longest night of all." An explosion is heard breaking the rhythm and an ethereal atmosphere takes over at 12 minutes, quite disturbing after all the upbeat music. A new fast and fragmented riff fades up and is followed by bright keyboard soloing. The band are off and running here and at their best. The lengthy instrumental section is powerful and enthusiastically executed. It runs out of steam at the end but nevertheless it is nice to hear such an ambitious lengthy track at the end of the 90s era.

It was quite an expedition, a lengthy voyage into the world of IQ, but at the end there is enough here to warrant high praise. It is not a masterpiece, due to some lulls in the excitement, but overall there are some wonderful shining moments on "Subtrerranea". It suffers from prog excess but if you give it time the melodies will impress and the musicianship is nothing short of excellent throughout. I prefer "Ever" and "Frequency" where the 1 CD is packed with non-stop brilliance, whereas this 2 CD album does not maintain a consistent quality with a few songs that may have been best left off. However, there is no denying that the band went for the concept album hammer and tongs, and the result is a wondrous journey into Neo prog territory.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 4/5 |


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