The Road of Bones


The lowest recorded temperature (-67.7 °C) in any permanently inhabited place on Earth was recorded at Oymyakon (Оймяко́н) in 1933 in eastern Siberia. In December and January the average daily temperature there is around -45 °C and the village lies deep within the permafrost region.

Building roads in this frozen and mountainous part of the world is difficult enough with modern machines; creating a 2000 km highway using picks and shovels would be unthinkable – unless you are living in Stalin’s USSR and you have a plentiful supply of inmates from the gulag labour camps to call upon. The R504 Kolyma Highway was built with a forced labour gang drawn from up to 200,000 camp internees between 1932 and 1953. At some point during that period it passed through Oymyakon, connecting it to Nizhny Bestyakh some 1000 km to the west and Magadan a similar distance to the east.

The new highway came to be called the road of bones because it was easier to incorporate the skeletons of those who perished during its construction within the road itself than to dig additional holes in which to bury them. Tens of thousands, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of men are buried within and beside that road.

I think we must assume that the progressive rock band, IQ, took the name of their 2014 album from that gruesome story. It’s hard to tell, though, from the lyrics of the title track.

Some lines resonate with the harrowing account of that road’s construction:

They survey the frozen scene, the cold countenance of hell

Shallow graves I mark with stones as I walk the road of bones

But overall the words fail to convey anything very much to a slightly peeved Crotchety Man; they seem neither profound nor poetic, to me. That’s a shame because Peter Nicholls’ vocals are a prominent part of the mix – warm, clear and perfectly suited to storytelling.

The instrumentation, though, is much more successful. Various keyboards roll over the senses in vintage prog rock style, bass lines skip and tumble, some understated guitar work adds an edge and the drum kit ticks along intelligently.

Wikipedia lists IQ as neo-progressive rock but to my ears the ‘neo’ is redundant. Their musical style owes so much to classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis that, if IQ had been around in the early seventies, the ‘neo’ sub-genre would never have been invented. And then there would be no temptation to make the futile distinction between neo-prog and new prog.

the band

Crotchety Man doesn’t like the cold. If he ever visits Oymyakon it will be in high summer when the maximum temperature can reach over 30 °C, making it one of only three places where the highest maximum is more than 100 °C above the lowest minimum. And that’s still not enough to thaw the bones in the only highway in town.

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