Angel of Death
155 · 15 January 98
Comparisons of Radiohead to Pink Floyd notwithstanding, progressive rock remains, as the Nineties hurry past on their way out, a commodity whose already-marginal commercial viability abroad resists translation to the US with a tenacity usually reserved for cars with the steering wheels on the wrong side, Vegemite, malaria and ritual scarring (though arguably the last of these is making some headway). Marillion, the leaders of the movement's modern wing, barely qualify as cult figures here, and anything beyond them inhabits an especially remote and dusty stretch of the Labyrinth of Obscurity. This is the age of the Global Village, of course (or, more properly, the Global Shopping Mall), so it's basically possible to buy anything from anywhere, but I'm still resisting that particular aspect of the world's drawing-in. The motions of trudging from record store to record store with my omnipresent want-list, the act of stalking up and down the aisles of CD bins, the senses of anticipation and elation that accompany the dance of fingers across spines to see if something potentially mythical on the list has finally assumed corporeal form -- all these ceremonial details are integral parts of the experience, to me. Record stores and concert halls are our temples to music, like book stores (and those few libraries that haven't diverted their book budgets to technological superfluity) are our temples to reading, and movie theaters our temples to film; they are public statements of the places these things occupy in our hearts. True, the temples are usually dominated by the gaudiest ephemera of their respective media, Spice Girls and celebrity memoirs and steroid sequels, but the facades of churches are almost always constructed of the most livid passions of a faith, not the quiet epiphanies that really form its core. Shopping by mail-order undermines this vital component of our civilization's infrastructure, I believe, so I try to do as little of it as possible. That said, it's probably a last-resort that the few US fans of IQ have by now become intimately acquainted with. The band puts out their records on their own label, Giant Electric Pea, and I have never seen a single GEP disc in a Boston store. Even in London, where I found my copy of this one, they were hardly commonplace.
Subterranea, the first new IQ studio album in four years, is the band's sixth proper album, and fourteenth release. The early stages of their history, at least, parallel that of Marillion quite closely. The first two studio albums, 1983's Tales From the Lush Attic and 1984's The Wake, are fitful, theatrical, exploratory and abstruse, if anything even more angular and unapproachable than Marillion's contemporaneous Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, albeit also a little more self-conscious and self-deprecating about their pretense. Marillion then put out the concert album Real to Reel, for which IQ's equivalent is the live disc Living Proof, a bootleg of an impromptu 1985 British television appearance that was recaptured by the band, remastered, and officially released on GEP in 1992. An even odder GEP retro-assemblage, the cryptic rehearsal-set Nine in a Pond Is Here, fills approximately the role of Marillion's out-takes compilation B'Sides Themselves. The IQ catalog then sort of skips ahead along the Marillion timeline, bypassing Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws, and getting straight to the point where their flamboyant lead singer, Peter Nicholls, departs, to be replaced by P.L. Menel, IQ's answer to Steve Hogarth. IQ's brief flirtation with a more succinctly melodic and commercial style, to match Marillion's Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, thus comes a couple years earlier, with 1987's Nomzamo and 1989's Are You Sitting Comfortably?, which were even distributed in the US, by the PolyGram affiliate Squawk, to little effect. Most serious IQ supporters, including the band themselves, seem to regard this period as an unfortunate digression, but these were the IQ albums I was first exposed to, and tempering epic prog ambition with pop forthrightness doesn't seem like a bad tactic, to me, so my affections for these two records retain a particular intensity. The emotional peaks of Nomzamo are still my favorite isolated IQ moments, and Are You Sitting Comfortably? is still my favorite single IQ album. This period's apparently obligatory disc of related miscellany is the 1990 GEP release J'ai Pollette D'arnu, half old b-sides and half stray concert recordings.
After that, IQ and Marillion finally diverge. In IQ's version of the universe, their commercial implosion also results in P.L. Menel leaving the band, and Peter Nicholls (who, in the interim, had formed a band called Niadem's Ghost, who released their sole album, In Sheltered Winds, also later reissued on GEP, in 1987) actually rejoining. With the original line-up of IQ effectively reconstituted (bassist John Jowitt, shared at the time with IQ keyboardist Martin Orford's other GEP band, Jadis, replaces Tim Esau; in an incestuous later twist, Jowitt would join ex-Marillion drummer Mick Pointer's new band Arena, and Jadis, without Jowitt or Orford, would move from GEP to Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery's label Dorian Music), 1993's studio album Ever sounds to me like exactly the synthesis of their original convoluted principles and some selected musical lessons from the pop years (especially the trick of tethering adventurous instrumental flights to squarely inexorable rhythm tracks) that the chronology would suggest. A period of surprisingly diligent retrenching followed, during which GEP managed to reclaim and reissue their first four studio albums, with a bonus track or two each, and then put out the lavish box set Forever Live, a career-summarizing 1993 German concert appearance captured on both a long video and two CDs.
If the live album represents IQ's time-stream intersecting, at least glancingly, with Marillion's again (the double-live album Made Again), then Subterranea could be their nod to Marillion's Brave. In juxtaposition, however, the two albums reveal the differences between the two bands as clearly as any pair. Brave is, to me, Marillion's most introspective and restrained record, a harrowing, spare and intimately personal concept album that resists disassembly fiercely, and so, at least for me, required some effort and patience to appreciate at all. Subterranea is even longer (almost an hour and three-quarters, on two discs), but is so consistently animated, throughout, that I find myself having almost the opposite problem, the charm of each individual song distracting me from following the overall flow. Where Brave has long sections in which things, especially if you're too close to them, can seem to drift, becalmed, even the long movements of Subterranea, like the surging "Failsafe", the lurching "Tunnel Vision" and the elegant, pulsing "Somewhere in Time", feel more like songs in their own right than transitional exposition. The shorter pieces span the range from eerie atmospherics ("Provider") to solid rock propulsion ("Subterranea", "Breathtaker"), passing through graceful acoustic lullaby and solemn monastic whir ("Sleepless Incidental", "The Sense in Sanity"), a haunting love song ("Speak My Name"), macabre drama ("Infernal Chorus"), sinister muttering ("King of Fools"), soaring intricacy ("State of Mine"), piano composure ("Laid Low", "High Waters"), some vaguely New-Age interludes ("Capricorn", "The Other Side"), and one heart-wrenchingly timeless mainstream pop anthem ("Unsolid Ground") on the way. All of which builds to, and is recapitulated in, the album's monumental finale, the twenty-minute "The Narrow Margin", which somehow manages to last that long without ever resorting to anything that sounds to me like noodling. If it makes any sense to say that progressive rock has a state of the art, this is it. Marillion's This Strange Engine hints that they may be returning to assume their throne again, but for the time being, IQ to me is the movement's center.
Of course, concept albums are supposed to be about something. One of the odd properties of progressive rock, though, I find, is that while an impression of lyrical sophistication is a required component of the aesthetic, this is mostly a matter of word-choice and syntax, and if you mix in a little healthy consonance with a few poetic flourishes like "falling apart at the seams", "in this darkest hour" and "then I know to free the reins of unquiet thoughts", it doesn't necessarily matter what, if anything, the songs end up being about. Subterranea, however, once I get out the booklet and follow along with it, turns out to be a rather disturbing amalgam of apocalyptic conspiracy paranoia, plaintive spiritual angst, romantic redemption, romantic rejection, and a rather alarming overall collapse of hope. The illustrations show an unexplained domino-like symbol cropping up Orwellianly in everything from children's paintings to ATM screens and a stained-glass church window, as if it's a hybrid of the icon of a new messiah and the insignia of a sinister cult, or possibly both. The narrator begins the story in a sort of embryonic limbo, wondering what sort of person he'll be, and over the course of it works through an inability to sustain himself in the face of moral decay, a hallucinatory impression that a homeless man is really a prophet (or perhaps vice versa), an argument in which he seems to be trying to turn down messiah-hood himself, a hopeful interlude in which either a woman can save him by speaking his name, or his god can, or he can save his god, a furious rage in which he seems set on tracking down and confronting Satan himself, some unnervingly serene ignorance, a bit of venomous schizophrenia, some exhausted resignation and a Zen-like surrender to instability. By "The Narrow Margin" he has amassed a pretty depressing body of incapacities and regrets, and seems to have alienated (or believes he has) both his lover and his god, although at times it's not clear whether these are separate.
Normally I might shrug at all this, and go back to humming along happily, but seeing Radiohead's OK Computer, an album I recognize as impressive but whose lyrics depress me so much that I can't listen to it, on so many year-end top-ten lists has made me temporarily hyper-aware of the relationship between lyrical content and my emotional responses. I want it to matter, frankly, what the words mean; it's rare enough for rock albums to have meanings that I'm loath to ignore one that does, even if I run the risk of having the text ruin the album for me. My impressions, though, are holding up: just the sound of Thom Yorke's voice is now sufficient to induce violent shivers, but IQ produces a thoughtful calm. Reverse-engineered explanations of why I'm able to keep listening to Subterranea, but not OK Computer, will inevitably smack of rationalization, I suspect. Part of it, of course, is a simple product of my reactions to the musical styles on the two albums; Radiohead's songs seem eerie and bleak, and even the angelic frailty of Yorke's singing has a deathly languor to it, while IQ's, dense with swirling, textural keyboards, elliptical guitar flights, symphonic dynamics and metallic churn, have a visceral heroic swell to them that can't help but influence what I make of the text. But while both albums seem to me to be at the precipice of suicide, it makes an incalculable difference that Subterranea's narrator has regrets. His diagnosis of the failure of his life relies on his recognition of what success might have constituted, and the depth of his depression comes precisely from the keenness of his awareness of his losses, and so his specific depression is also an expression of his belief in human potential. Depression, in his situation, is cogent and correct; tragedy and helplessness are supposed to depress you. The anger contained in this sort of depression is part of the soul's defense against apathy. The misanthropy and misery of Thom Yorke's persona, on the other hand, feels to me like a nihilistic surrender, not a function of any kind of resistance or remorse. OK Computer isn't depressed about what might have been, it's depressed about what is, and doesn't appear to believe that there are any other options. Of course, it's possible that there aren't any other options, but if we're going to stay alive, and listen to records, we had better learn to sustain every fable we can invent that suggests a vulnerability for evil.
Twelfth Night: Collectors Item
My other favorite progressive-rock discovery, in a massive stack of genre fillers I'm glad to have, but uninterested in discussing, is this scattershot collection of songs (whose title ought to have had an apostrophe somewhere, I feel sure) from Marillion and IQ contemporaries Twelfth Night, which came out way back in 1991, but is so far the only trace of the band I've been able to find on CD. Vocalist turnover seems to be a compulsory experience for progressive bands; of the eight songs on this compilation, the first two, recorded in 1982 and 1983, feature original singer Geoff Mann, the middle four, from 1984-86, have his replacement, Andy Sears, and for the last two, recorded by a reunited band in 1988, Geoff Mann is back again. The two early songs fit squarely into the company of Marillion and IQ's first records, complicated and segmented on the scale of Marillion's "Grendel" or IQ's "The Last Human Gateway", but with a little more of the unabashed approachability of "Market Square Heroes" or "The Thousand Days". The long "We Are Sane", from the album Fact and Fiction, opens with a Nyman-esque choirboy falsetto and glistening synthesizer sighs over chaotic background chatter, and gradually evolves through some "Fugazi"-ish spoken parts into stomping rock strut, a manic, howling chorus and some fearless tape experiments that end up, to me, sounding more than a little like a combination of Kraftwerk, Specimen and some renegade Smurfs. The even longer "Sequences", from the concert record Live and Let Live, is a sprawling multi-character horrors-of-war saga, with enough musical ideas for a whole album and at least enough notes for half of one, that makes Marillion's "Forgotten Sons" seem conciliatory and terse.
Andy Sears sounds a little less like Fish than Geoff Mann, a little more like he could have spent the decade in a-ha or Naked Eyes if he'd preferred. The first of his songs here, the title track of the 1984 album Art and Illusion, might have even made a good New Wave single with a few fewer tempo changes and some guitar parts transposed to keyboards. The chorus drum flourishes and guitar hooks are straight out of "Market Square Heroes", and the allegorical lyrical presence of the jester is an unmistakable Fish touch, but I have no idea if coincidence or influence is responsible. "First New Day", from the same album (produced, bizarrely, by Gil Norton, who would later end up at another sonic pole entirely, doing Pixies albums), is colder and more geometrical, glacial synth chords slicing through in broad, reflective sheets. The technophobic epic "Take a Look", from the 1986 album Twelfth Night, is nervous and grinding, Sears spinning from vocal personality to personality as if daring the other players to come up with jump-cut transitions to match, and builds to a deliriously redemptive choral finale based on the endearingly simple faith that all it takes to fight the forces of mechanization is looking at yourself and remembering what you are capable of. The jerky "Blondon Fair", the last Sears track, was the b-side to the excerpt from "Take a Look" that served as a single, and parts of it sound as much like Peter Gabriel's solo work as they do like Genesis when he was still in it.
The last two Geoff Mann tracks, though these versions were recorded in 1988, are both songs from earlier in the band's life. "The Collector", which was apparently played live but never previously recorded, dwarfs even "Sequences" in length, but lacks much narrative structure, and so doesn't seem to me to accomplish as much with its mass. "Love Song", conversely, remade from its original appearance on Fact and Fiction, is an uncharacteristically straight-forward and concise slow anthem that could almost be by Then Jerico or the Sound. "I remember Geoff's farewell gigs at the Marquee being very emotional", keyboardist Rick Battersby comments in the notes, and although Geoff's death, from cancer, came two years after this collection was released, and thus can't be the "farewell" referred to, there is such a patient nobility to this performance of "Love Song", especially, that it could, it seems to me, be the singer's own living elegy.
Which, too, is both depressing and uplifting. But some nights it seems to me like the tension between the two is all that ever holds us in place.