May 3, 2020

IO Earth have once again managed to produce a powerful and emotionally moving album that will be a strong candidate for the best progressive album of the year

How to describe the music of IO Earth? Many bands like to say that their music can’t be pigeon-holed but that phrase definitely rings true for the Birmingham-based band. Superficially you could describe them as symphonic prog but that could give misleading image of a band that sounds like Yes for example. They are symphonic in the scale of their compositions and their heavy use of keyboards but their songs are rarely bombastic and are mostly slow moving with a strong emphasis on sonic beauty over anything else.  Add to this mix, bits of ambient, folk/ethnic and classical touches, and that’s IO Earth.

In a recent interview and pre-release walk through of this their fifth album with Velvet Thunder (see that interview here) the band said that the original intention had been to release a radically different album in an ambient style, reflecting the softer side of the band. It is true that there are more ambient passages here compared to previous albums but fans of the group don’t need to worry – there is no need to get the incense and yoga mat out – because during its creation the band gradually drifted back to much more familiar territory. But, the progressive metal elements that occasionally creep into their music are absent here and there’s not even anything that you would call a riff. While Adam Gough’s keyboards do dominate the soundscape, that doesn’t mean Dave Cureton’s guitar doesn’t have an impact – far from it because some of the most emotionally charged moments are created by his guitar playing. 

The title track opens the album with a strong ambient feel and acts as something of an overture, introducing musical fragments that appear later in the album. The highlight of this track is the beautiful middle section consisting of quiet musings on electric guitar over a dreamy synthesizer background. Next up is the 11 minute Waterfall. Again, there’s an ambient feel to the introduction, including some impressive wordless vocals (from a Mongolian lady, apparently!) before there’s a magical change of mood with the sudden entry of Rosanna Lefevre singing a gorgeous melody accompanied initially only by warm piano chords. The song builds up to a thrilling climax before easing to a close with piano, violin and flute. It’s an extraordinary song and worth the price of the album on its own.

Those first two songs are imbued with such a sense of peace and beauty that the next track Breathe comes as something of a shock. All beauty disappears as distant muted trumpets wail over a veiled soundscape to give a sense of utter desolation. And that was the nice part of the track! The middle section becomes distinctly menacing with eerie whispered words in the background and the track ends disturbingly with the whispered phrase ‘You’ll feel no pain’ which seems to promise anything but that. Two short tracks, Resonance I and Resonance II act as book ends to Circles, another slightly menacing track which almost disintegrates musically in its central section, and the much more positive Shadows.

The album closer is the 18 minute epic The Rain which apparently intends to reflect the mood of being sat by the window on a dark wet Sunday contemplating life, and reflecting on those no longer with us. Heavy stuff!  The song is a bit of a slow burner, moving forward tentatively and interweaving Cureton’s and Lefevre’s vocals effectively. Then at the six and a half minute mark there’s another of those spine-tingling moments when Cureton enters with stunningly beautiful playing on the guitar. The song builds up to a powerful instrumental climax before the tension unwinds with piano chords and short spoken life affirming messages.

IO Earth have once again managed to produce a powerful and emotionally moving album that will be a strong candidate for the best progressive album of the year. Existing fans will no doubt lap it up. I can only encourage those who don’t know the band to find out what they’ve been missing.