One of the great recordings of the neo-prog age finally given the makeover that it needed.
It’s 1983 and most of Britain is flouncing around in a ra-ra skirt to the strains of Culture Club or contemplating suicide in a darkened bedroom as Echo & The Bunnymen’s Porcupine revolves on a music-centre turntable. Outside of the Kerrang!/Sounds readership, few would have been aware – or even cared – that a much-maligned rock genre was plotting a return to the musical landscape. Having waited for the dust of the punk revolution to finally settle, a number of young British progressive rock bands were making tentative steps towards the limelight, amongst them soon-to-be chart-toppers Marillion, Pallas, Twelfth Night, and IQ. As a quirky-looking group of misfits – studded dog-collars; new romantic hairdos; a grease-painted vocalist etc -, the latter certainly stood out from their more solemn contemporaries; and judging by the irreverent tone of their press interviews and tendency to throw punk cover versions into the live set, there was clearly a rare sense of humour at work too. In all, IQ had an irresistible, colourful eccentricity that connived to undermine the clichéd perception of prog as an intellectual undertaking reserved for po-faced Oxbridge eggheads. With that in mind, it was surprising to find that the band’s vinyl debut Tales From The Lush Attic was actually a serious-minded work revolving around such themes as heroin addiction, existential angst, and child abuse. That said, with its exhilarating dynamics, sublime tunefulness, and sheer musical scope, the album is certainly no depressing, self-indulgent wallow in despair and depravity.
As impressive as the music on the original 1983 release was, the extremely rushed recording schedule resulted in a final product that suffered from a threadbare sound that pulled the punch from the more aggressive moments and left the quieter sections sounding somewhat hollow. Whereas budget-restrained punk and (less ambitious) metal bands could adequately commit their songs to tape over a couple of days, prog rock of the IQ kind demands care, attention, and time. And so, acknowledging the eternal affection that fans have for this music, in 2012 IQ guitarist Mike Holmes returned to the original multi-tracks and remixed the album, staying faithful to its spirit while bringing out previously unheard or unintentionally subdued instrumentation, and giving a polish to the overall sound. The results are nothing short of spectacular. Tales… now has that air of panoramic magnitude it always cried out for, while the bass and drums have gained an astonishing power that was chronically lacking before. As befits such a landmark for the band and its fans, the remixed version comes as part of an expansive CD/DVD set, lovingly packaged in a very attractive hardback book containing a wealth of pictures from the era and essays on the making of the album and the remix process.
In time-honoured prog tradition, IQ opens the album with a 20-minute masterpiece of truly epic proportions. The Last Human Gateway – an episodic psychodrama sensitively played out by vocalist Peter Nicholls – is as sweepingly grand as its title implies. On this newly bolstered mix, the twists and turns are more exciting than ever before, while the quieter, reflective passages have much more atmospheric depth. The eruptions of tightly orchestrated rock now boast a fiery, punk energy, making a mockery of those who condemn prog for its airy-fairy flaccidity. Despite its length, this is taut, lean, concentrated drama; and its multiple sections flow effortlessly into one another to thrilling effect. The finale is particularly spell-binding as a ferocious prog meltdown segues into a moving, grandiose synthesizer theme. Martin Orford’s keyboards are a prominent feature of the entire record. Perhaps due more to the technical limitations of the era and a lack of funds than artistic choice, they’re either replicating the growling tone of a Hammond organ or being channelled through a generic, early 80’s Moog-like effect often heard on public information films of the era! Those expecting subtlety will no doubt be alarmed by this, but both approaches work beautifully within the tapestry of sound and are an integral part of the record’s historic charm.
Following the exhausting turbulence of The Last Human Gateway, Through The Corridors (Oh! Shit Me!) breaks the mood of introspection with its frenetic energy and a lightly-sketched portrait of an individual with a sexual craving for children. A highly problematic subject for a rock song, even in the most delicate hands, and, in truth, although the lyrics are dressed in metaphor, it’s an unwelcome aspect of an otherwise enjoyable, if minor, punk-prog tune.
Awake & Nervous sees a return to more sophisticated songwriting. When the rest of the band join with Orford’s keyboards during the intro, the song instantly gains an intimidating, expansive grandeur as the bass and drums lock tightly together in breathtaking union. This will surely put a lump in the throat of any prog devotee. Nicholls’ vocals – which always sounded exposed and slightly strained on the original – have particularly benefitted from the remix on this track. The improved balance between voice and instruments gives Awake and Nervous a formidable impact that was previously absent.
Ominous power chords over a hyperactive rhythm, and an exquisite lead guitar melody, heralds the first chapter of Tales’… most celebrated song. The Enemy Smacks charts the mental disintegration of a heroin addict via multiple head-spinning transitions. Passages of berserk punkoid mania submit to the eerie, nocturnal ruminations of someone very close to the fringes of insanity. A particularly unsettling section, built upon some befuddling alien time signature, threatens to derail at any second, until a spine-tingling Gilmouresque blues solo blossoms into life, restoring a temporary sense of calm. The Enemy Smacks is a tour-de-force of invention and stunning musicianship that serves to tell a compelling story rather than acting as some soulless demonstration of virtuosity. But then, as IQ’s subsequent recordings continue to show, their brand of progressive rock is all about the song and not the prowess of the performers, however impressive that might be.
Completing the CD portion of the package are a number of bonus tracks dating from the Tales era, including the gentle acoustic ballad Wintertell (pretty, but wisely excluded from the original album’s tracklist); an instrumental demo of Just Changing Hands (in its vocal version, a would-be IQ classic that was sadly never afforded the professional studio treatment); and the ‘unfinished’ Dans Le Parc Du Chateau Noir (a mellotron-powered epic that eventually transforms into something akin to the theme from a forgotten 1980 ITV thriller).
For the IQ devotee, there’s an embarrassment of riches on the accompanying DVD, in particular a professionally shot live performance from 2011 which brilliantly showcases the entire Tales…album. Then there’s a raft of MP3 files including demos and rehearsal run-throughs of tracks found elsewhere on the set. As expected, the sound quality is variable but as an insight into the IQ song creation process, these make fascinating listening for the obsessive. Alongside the original 1983 mix of Tales… (which proves interesting for comparison purposes), there’s also an amusing, light-hearted commentary – punctuated by farmyard noises (!) – running the length of the album. Centred more on the early exploits of a very young IQ than on heavy academic analysis, the personable charm of Pete Nicholls and Mike Holmes warmly shines through as they reminisce about climbing onto the roof of The Marquee to watch a sold-out Genesis reunion gig and, ahem, enjoying communal showers after rehearsal sessions. Finally, there’s the band’s 1982 cassette album Seven Stories Into Eight. If you can stomach the tape hiss, the primitive mixing, and muffled sound quality, it’s intriguing stuff. More wacky and upbeat than their vinyl debut, Seven Stories… is brimming with madcap ideas and a tireless vitality even if songs themselves largely fail to engage with your consciousness. As Mike Holmes concedes in the commentary, the band’s songwriting abilities would develop immeasurably by the time that Tales… was recorded.
Having been given the deluxe treatment it so richly deserved, Tales.. finally deserves to be considered a bonafide classic of progressive rock. Mike Holmes’ remix is nothing short of a revelation and for those who enjoyed the original but found the unrefined production elements grating, it’s mandatory listening. For those who, back in 1983, were too preoccupied with the latest NME-approved alternative band to notice the emergence of IQ (and their frankly less appetising neo-prog brethren) – and those simply too young to remember – this enhanced version is an opportunity to discover that progressive rock can be as viscerally exhilarating as any three-chord thrash, as it takes the mind on a thrilling journey through myriad moods, sounds, and images. And, finally. if the idea of prog rock is still anathema to you, to quote wise words from a darling of the 1983 pop scene: “Listen without prejudice”!
Help support The Reprobate: