March 18, 2020

PHOTOS: Wendy Hagenbeek

It’s big, hearty, confident progressive rock music which, despite its left-field origins, still has ‘IO Earth’ written right through it, like a stick of Birmingham rock.

Saturday March 8 2020, and it is one of those grey, overcast days which only England can provide, as if to remind us that Spring isn’t here just yet, so don’t get any ideas. I’m on my way down the M6 to Birmingham – the heart of England, the Second City, and also no stranger to these grey skies. My destination is IO Earth’s recording studio, where I am to be treated to a preview playback of the upcoming album Aura, in the company of guitarist Dave Cureton and keyboard man / multi-instrumentalist Adam Gough, the band’s creative hub in terms of writing and recording, along with the band’s manager, video editor, graphic designer and and general ‘miracle worker’ Wendy Hagenbeek. First, however, I have to find the place!

This proves no simple task. A unit located deep in one of those industrial estates which are impenetrable to the uninitiated, I find the general location and begin driving around it with such randomness that I am envisioning having to form a Fellowship to engage in the search with me – and such is my frustration that I finally have to give in to that last resort so loathed by male drivers everywhere: phone to ask directions. The shame! Anyhow, along with some assistance from Dave Cureton’s arms waving in flagless semaphore fashion to guide me to the correct location, I’m here and, amazingly, on time!

IO Earth’s own studio unit is an extremely well-appointed space, with a recording room set up with all of the band’s instrumentation, along with a small ‘control room’ through the expected window, and even a kitchen area allowing for a flow of hot drinks and snacks to flagging musicians. It’s not Abbey Road of course, but there are a lot worse environments to invoke the creative muse, and straight away it is easy to imagine some of these great songs coming together here. Well, after the frustrated guitarist in me has stopped looking at all of the effects pedals and such, anyhow. Armed with tea and Jaffa cakes (hey, that’s rock and roll enough for me these days!), I settle into the control room to be treated to the final masters of the new album via the rather impressive sound system which services this small yet quite comfortable working space.

The album’s title is Aura, which is also the name of the first track, and I get the overview of the genesis and development of the recording first of all. Originally, I am informed, it was intended to be a rather ‘ambient’ piece of work, in a radical shift for the band, with little or nothing in terms of drums or full band arrangements. However, such lofty artistic aims have been slightly sidelined by the impossibility to resist rather a lot of big crescendos and strident guitar solos. Adam and Dave both wear broad smiles as they explain this, which leads me to the definite conclusion that they are happy that things took this path – as indeed, I must confess, am I. Not that this is an album devoid of experimentation or surprises, as much of the ambient spirit remains, only in a much amplified and embellished form. While there is an abundance of what could be referred to as ‘mood music’ here (for want of a better term), it’s a long way away from Enya or Brian Eno. It’s big, hearty, confident progressive rock music which, despite its left-field origins, still has ‘IO Earth’ written right through it, like a stick of Birmingham rock. Note at this point that this is not intended to be an in-depth ‘review’, as that would be impossible from a single listen to an album like this, but very much a first impression. Now, let’s get onto that title track, shall we?

Dave and Adam, in the Control Room…

Aura is a song which makes absolute sense coming at the beginning of the album, because it perfectly exemplifies the ‘ambient’ idea, and the way it became twisted through the IO Earth looking glass. There is a relaxed, floaty feel for much of the track, in the vein of the Breathe-type bits of Dark Side Of The Moon, and there are also hints of the type of experimental percussion that Kate Bush employed on recordings such as The Dreaming. It isn’t content to stay in that pleasant, laid back vein however, as a typically effusive Cureton guitar solo causes the band to throw in their hand, to what ends up as tremendously contrasting effect. Speaking of the guitar work on the track, it is true that the name ‘David Gilmour’ may rise unbidden to many people’s lips, but Dave, however, is keen to dissuade us about this. ‘People say that’, he says, ‘and I can see where it comes from, but I can honestly say that, great as he is, Gilmour wasn’t a particular influence on me on the album. With this track in particular, if I was channeling anything it would be Mark Knopfler from his work on Brothers In Arms. I’d been listening to that album, and the title track in particular has some beautiful guitar work on it, and if anything could be said to have been in my head, that would be it. The track itself, really, not the whole album, or Dire Straits in general I hasten to add’. Which is probably a good thing – having the album sounding like Walk Of Life would have been unfortunate enough, but the thought of Dave and Adam Twisting By The Pool is not something I want to consider, either musically or literally!

The track also functions as something of an ‘overture’ of sorts, as Adam explains. ‘If you listen to the track, there are melodies and themes in it which pop up again throughout the album, which is a technique we’ve used before. It’s so that you can be listening to a track later on in the record and hear something which makes you think, hang on, have I heard that before? And of course, you have. We do that throughout the album actually, not just on that track, so a snippet of melody might recur in a different guise, on a different instrument or in an alternative time signature or something. There are even bits on this album where we’ve hearkened back to something on one or our previous records in a way, and it will be really interesting to see whether people pick up on it or not. We really like doing that, and I think it’s fun for the listener as well, and maybe satisfying when you discover something like that.’

Jennie Appleyard, who supplies cello on most of the tracks

If Aura itself is a perfect opener to the album, the following track Waterfall is surely set to become a bona fide IO Classic. A twelve-minute epic-length prog ballad, it is sung brilliantly by Rosanna LeFevre, while the band all excel throughout the lengthy instrumental sections, including solo excursions for both the keyboards and guitar. In addition to Rosanna, there is another female voice present on the track, contributing operatic wordless vocal ‘tone colour’ to parts of the song to great effect, and the guys explain who it is, and how it came to be used. Dave explains: ‘The singer in question is a lady, originally from Mongolia actually, named Uyanga Bold. We contacted her about recording the whole parts for the album, but it wasn’t practical this time around, so we used some amazing software that we have, from these people called East West. We’ve been using their software since the first album, for strings and horns and things, but it’s getting more refined all the time, and on this occasion we used it with Uyanga’s voice, in a way which takes a sample of the voice and builds up the whole vocal part’. Adam expands on this: ‘It’s still a real voice, it’s just manipulated into the part that it sings by the software. It’s incredible what it can do, you can take a choir sample and make them sing your own lyrics. We’d love to have our own orchestra and choir, but it’s not really feasible!’

All of the ‘conventional’ vocals are done by Rosanna, of course, and she is also very much the focal point of the accompanying video for the song, which we view in real time as we listen. She walks around, across and in the vicinity of a stream with its very own waterfall, barefoot and elegant in a white dress, more in the vein of previous vocalist Linda Odinsen’s stage attire than her own slightly more ‘rock chick’ image – but she looks stunningly elegant and graceful, projecting precisely the mood for the music. As the video progresses (with Rosanna taking some time seated on a frankly rather cold and wet looking rock by the waterfall!), the band appear in the surrounding forest,  playing their clearly unplugged instruments. It’s testament to the skill in creating the requisite atmosphere for the song, however, that disbelief is suspended, even when they throw some ‘shapes’ while performing, and certainly I personally hardly gave the miming angle a thought.

Now, I say ‘the surrounding forest’, because that is what it appears to be, on a lovely sun-dappled day, but the reality of it was very different as Dave explains. ‘Yes, it was three different forests actually, but you can’t really tell! The waterfall itself was in Wirksworth in the Derbyshire dales, and my parts, Luke’s parts and Tim’s were filmed in Matlock, not too far away. Some of the other bits were done in a little woodland area not too far from where I live, but the skill is in fitting them all together to make it seem as if it’s one location, and that’s where Wendy does an incredible job’. Adam takes it up: ‘It’s like mixing a song really, a similar skill. When you record a song it’s not usually done with everyone together and playing at the same time, it might be different times, even different recording locations, and it has to be mixed together to form a cohesive whole. I have to add also that while it might look like a nice day, it was actually in November and it was absolutely perishing cold! Again though, you can’t tell, thankfully’. There was also a tremendous Spinal Tap moment as Adam briefly let his artistic vision slightly overshoot the practicalities of the production. As he explains, ‘Well, you know where you see me in the video with my keyboard – all nicely unplugged of course – and I’m happily playing there? What I wanted to do originally, and even planned to do, was to actually take a real piano into the forest. I thought ‘ah, now that would look great!’ – and it probably would have done, but then it became apparent that, since a piano weighs about a ton and the place that we had to get to was a fifteen minute walk, that it might not be practical! We even talked about if we could get the piano there and couldn’t get it back again, maybe we could set fire to it for a dramatic section, but as well as being heavy pianos are also expensive. So we had to abandon that!’

The band rock out good and proper in the studio recording space. Lead guitarists get to wear shorts…

We’re back in the slightly more ambient – or perhaps better described as ‘abstract’ – territory for the next track, Breathe. It sounds to these ears as if it could be a collage of film score music, as it opens with a rather Ennio Morricone ‘spaghetti western’ feel before moving later to a somewhat unsettling passage which evokes horror film soundtracks by the likes of Goblin, in case anyone recalls their frankly terrifying music to films like Suspiria. This prompts me to observe that the track could have been titled something like ‘Music For Several Films’, had they felt a little more pretentious! Adam sort of agrees with this. ‘Yes, I can certainly see that Ennio Morricone thing, with the echoey trumpets which are on there, but the horror atmosphere in the latter part of the track is there without doubt. We’ve been rather clever there you see. We recorded it in B minor, you see, and as everyone knows that D minor is the saddest of all keys, B minor is the most terrifying of all keys! There are some nice eerie whispers going on, and also a full on choir singing some Latin words, which all contributes to that unnerving feel. With this album in general, we really wanted to get away from the regular song structure ideas – even more than prog does generally – and let them grow as they evolve, to hopefully conjure up pictures or meanings in the listener’s mind’.

Dave and Adam again… ‘Men At Work’

From this we move into what could almost be called a four-song ‘cycle’ or even ‘suite’ as Resonance Parts One and Two (both quite short pieces) bookend two longer tracks entitled Circles and Shadows. They largely dispense with any conventional vocals, using sections of spoken word and ‘wordless singing’, and probably best exemplify the adventurous and (here comes that word again!) ‘ambient’ spirit of the album. They also embody the fact of how the initial intent for a low-key record was eroded as it evolved, with an astonishing section in Circles. You’ll know when you hear it. I was sitting there, enjoying the pleasant, reflective music flowing around me when, suddenly, a paving slab was dropped on my head! There are moments when you can almost hear the brain-churning struggle of whether to rip the actual ‘kitchen sink’ out and throw it in, before order is restored. To say it is powerful is an understatement. Shadows also comes with another video which we view in real time – it was still unfinished and missing scenes at that point, but it can now be viewed in its full glory at the foot of this piece. Even in its part-complete form it is obvious that this is a brilliant and thought provoking piece of film, making you think deeply about the plight of war veterans even as you absorb the music. This one does contain lyrics, but it is sung by Dave.

Considering this four-parter as a whole, I ask whether it was deliberate to not feature Rosanna’s regular vocals for this whole lengthy section, and how adventurous, or risky, did they think it was. Dave is first to expand on this. ‘The thing about it is that we never write with a particular instrument or even voice in mind. We’ll put the music together and then we’ll use the instrumentation that we feel best serves the song. It might be a vocal from Rose, it might be some sax from Luke or violin from Jez or whatever. We don’t think ‘Oh, we need a guitar part here or a keyboard solo there, or a bit for whoever there, it’s whatever fits. Sometimes we don’t plan a vocal, and we can be listening to it back and I’ll start humming along, and suddenly there’s a vocal part. As far as the experimentation goes, I never really write things for the audience’. ‘The audience will be delighted about that, Dave’, I reply. ‘Ha-ha, no! You know what I mean’, he laughs. ‘I know there are people who like the big guitar riff, and people who like the melodic vocal passages or whatever, but if you try to fit them all in like a formula it doesn’t work’. Adam offers his thoughts at this point. ‘We are very fortunate in that we have an audience who trust us to produce what we think is right, and in the same way we can trust them to listen to whatever we produce with open ears, and that’s something that can never be taken for granted’. ‘That’s what I meant you see!’, cries Dave, and the room dissolves into laughter. This is a group of musicians who truly love what they do, and any time in their company underlines this. The audience is in safe hands, I believe!

He’s playing on a carpet! Now THAT’S prog! And also acoustic reasons of course…

Finally we move on to the final track, The Rain, and what an epic this one is, coming in at a weighty 18 minutes. Adam immediately clarifies that strictly speaking it is fifteen, but it ends on a lengthy, calming epilogue of rain and birdsong, as he jokes ‘Don’t turn it off during the rain though, or you’ll miss the birdsong!’ This one really ticks all of the IO boxes. There are instrumental sections given time to develop and slowly reveal their charms. There is a superb vocal performance from Rosanna, back in all her pomp after the previous tracks, and there are big parts. Properly big parts. Really, really big parts. There are also a collection of voices intermingled as a grand collage, talking about what makes us, as people, sad or happy, who we’d like to talk to again who is no longer with us, what advice we would have liked to have received when we were young, all of those things which define our lives and thoughts. The music skilfully rises and falls, changing from minor to major keys, and weaves in and out of the emotions portrayed, in a tremendously clever piece of craftsmanship. Adam explains to me what the song is really about. ‘Essentially, it is about the emotions and thoughts expressed in those questions. If you think of a Sunday afternoon, when it’s dark and wet, and you’re sitting by the window listening to the rain and contemplating your life: what makes you happy or sad, how has your life gone, and which loved ones do you wish were still with you. That’s what gave us the idea about sending out those questions, and I think the song had to end the way it does’.

It’s been a very enriching afternoon, but before winding up I ask the guys for their final thoughts on the record. Dave: ‘I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done. I’m very proud of it, because there are so many interesting twists and turns on it. It might get some criticism, but I also hope some people will love it for what it is as much as we do. It’s not an album that we’ll be playing in its entirety live as we did with Solitude, but there are obvious tracks which will be key parts of the live show I think’. Adam agrees with this assessment, adding ‘It’s better to be interesting than safe, I think, as long as it’s interesting and yet still good, which we think, and hope this is! It’s still very much an IO Earth album, just not quite in that same stabby, heavy, riffy way that some of the other stuff is. Mind you, the next one is already being planned, and there may be different approaches again. I already think people will like it’.

I’m quite certain they will. And if that next album contains more of that ‘stabby, heavy’ stuff it will doubtless be received as enthusiastically as Aura surely will, and deserves to, be. It’s all part of that big, wide IO Earth. Let’s embrace it!