IQ – Subterranea
This is supposed to be IQ’s masterwork. An hour and a half plus concept album that embodies all that is good about IQ. It was touted as one of the great albums of the year, if not the great album of the year. I wish I could agree with all the gushing sentiment, but there are holes that prevent me from doing that. Still, it is a very good album.
As I said, this is a concept album. Aside from the lyrics, there is absolutely no guidance in the liner notes to guide the listener as to what the concept actually is. From some information on the Dutch IQ Page, here’s what I figured out: Our hero is being kept in bondage by a person known only as Provider. He has no name, has never been in the real world, and is dependent on Provider for all his needs. Provider kicks him out into the cruel world, where our hero mingles with the street folk and a religious cult, falls in love (with a woman who gives him a name) but then loses her. Our hero notices a person following him, a person reporting to Provider on his progress. Our hero turns the table on this gentlemen, extracts the name and location of Provider, and kills him. Our hero pledges to seek his revenge on Provider and sets out to find him. In the process, he finds out that he is not alone. In the end, his attempt to burn Provider and his operation to the ground is unsuccessful, and our hero voluntarily returns to captivity, because he is more dangerous on the outside.
I have no earthly idea if that is really what happens, or what it means. Which is one of my two problems with the album. Peter Nicholls’ lyrics are traditionally obtuse, which is great when they stand on their own and don’t have to mean anything. But here, any sense of a story gets lost all to often. For example, the song “Speak My Name” concerns our hero’s all-too-brief love affair, but we hear no lead in and no mention of her leaving. I can see it in the lyrics once I know the story, but can’t get the story out of the lyrics themselves. In a normal album, I don’t much care if a song doesn’t make sense to me. Hell, after all these years I have no idea what all of “Close to the Edge” is about! But, if you’re going to put across a concept, it’s got to come across on its own.
The other problem with the album is that I think it is overlong. It almost seems to me that they came up with about 80-85 minutes worth of material and were faced with a dilemma. Trim it to fit on one CD, or flesh it out a bit to stretch across two discs. Musically, there are too many places that are straight forward for too long. While there are parts which soar on typical IQ walls of sound, and the album is peppered with interesting and effective keyboard and guitar solos and such, they do not make their presence enough on the album. That mix, that balance, is what I thought made IQ the band it was, what set them apart from other neo-prog bands. Here, that balance is tipped too much towards more direct songs that support the lyrics, which would be OK if the lyrics were more effective, as I discussed above.
After all that, you’re probably wondering how on Earth I can rate this album highly. Fact is, I tend to focus on the negative because so many people are so positive about the album. There is a lot to like here, and I’ve listened to this several times in its entirety, all 102 minutes of it. Maybe the worst thing is that it leaves me wanting more.