December 19, 2019

…there is a trip back to the very first IO album for a tremendous rendition of the epic Creation, which is greeted like an old friend by the assembled throng

When you go to a gig, you often tend to learn something new. Sometimes it’s about the bands, sometimes it’s about the venue, sometimes it might even be about the parking situation around the area or how good the beer is. Tonight, the IO Earth ‘Christmas Party’ is no exception, only in this case the first thing I discover is that in the city of Birmingham the concept of ‘Sunday night’ has no meaning. As I head into the city centre en route to the venue, the sheer volume of traffic and general population thronging the streets is akin to a cross between New York City and New Delhi. With the rain-slicked roads and frustrating SatNav issues, every turn takes on the exciting reality of a cross between a lottery ticket and a game of Russian Roulette. It’s exciting times.

Owing to this, HeKz are already on stage when I arrive at my destination and halt the car in mid-thankful prayer at still being alive. The Hare & Hounds, a new venue to me, is a nice little pub with two concert rooms upstairs, nestled in the South Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath. Straight away it’s clearly going to be worth the trip, as the strains of HeKz purveying their heavy prog-metal wares drift down the stairs to me. They are a couple of songs in, but there is still plenty to come. The venue room itself is nicely compact, with a fairly small stage at one end and a bar at the other, and it is full of members of what has become known affectionately as the ‘IO Earth Family’.

[HeKz are] like Dream Theater rocking up in a small venue near you and just going for it…

HeKz: (L-R) Tom Smith, Matt Young, Al Beveridge

As a support band, it has to be stated right off the bat that you can’t do better than HeKz. No matter how tired or wet the crowd might be, their in-your-face pummelling energy and obvious exhilaration cannot help but get everyone to shake off their various cobwebs and get right into the mood. Within five minutes traffic headaches and rain are forgotten by your humble scribe and replaced instead by remembering just how enjoyable HeKz have been every time I’ve seen them. The two standout tracks are the longest in the set: Lines In The Sand from third and latest album Invicta – introduced by affable and infectious frontman Matt Young as ‘the mid-album epic – and the set-closer which is becoming their very own Freebird moment, the 12-minute The Black Hand from the impossible-to-pronounce Caerus album. The band, all of whom appear impossibly young to wizened veterans like myself (which is a good thing by the way!), are tight as the proverbial drum, and clearly seriously well-rehearsed despite the great time they are obviously having. They are a fine band, and clearly up to the challenge of having a name which is impossible to Google for unless someone spells it for you. Any lover of progressive metal with a nice emphasis on the ‘metal’ should check them out – it’s like Dream Theater rocking up in a small venue near you and just going for it! The only issue with the set tonight is that Matt’s vocals are mixed somewhat low in proceedings, but this may be to do with the headset microphone which he wears to give him maximum mobility. It enables him to channel his ‘inner Madonna’, but thankfully without the wardrobe choices.

A rapid changeover allows for a quick opportunity to catch up with some friends and acquaintances – always the case at IO gigs – before the main course of the evening somehow squeeze themselves into the stage in all of their seven-piece glory to a palpable sense of expectation. With a new album planned for the early part of 2020, the setlist showcasing the whole of the Solitude album had been replaced by a trip through all four of the band’s albums with some favourites and a few very welcome surprises thrown in. New World, used as an encore number in recent times, is moved up to set-opener, and fulfils the role perfectly, getting everybody into the party spirit right away. There is still a large dose of the excellent Solitude album, naturally, with five of its eight tracks making an appearance, beginning with second track up Strangest Ways In Life. The band are clearly relishing the show, and it is notable to see new drummer Tim Wilson (introduced as ‘Tim O’Tei’) making an immediate impression with a hugely confident and assertive performance utterly belying his ‘newcomer’ status.

IO EARTH: Dave Cureton (regretting taking that sherbert lemon!), Roseanne Lefevre, Christian Noakes, Jez King

The ‘face of the band’, Dave Cureton is as irrepressibly good-humoured as ever during his stage announcements, drawing deserved attention as ever to his oft-overlooked songwriting partner and band founder Adam Gough, who is unfortunately forced to lurk half-hidden behind the speakers at his keyboard, such is the crowd of musicians on the small stage. This of course doesn’t prevent Mr Cureton stalking the area during the heavier sections, as always attacking his guitar with an aggression that leads one to wonder what the fuss was about Pete Townsend anyhow.

Notes pure enough to shatter glassware are hit towards the end as Rosanna delivers a performance of magnificently restrained elegance.

Dave Cureton and Roseanne Lefevre

Obvious highlights are the likes of Moments, Body And Soul and Solitude itself, but the real honours are reserved for a couple of less anticipated selections. Firstly there is a trip back to the very first IO album for a tremendous rendition of the epic Creation, which is greeted like an old friend by the assembled throng, but perhaps the jewel in the whole crown comes when most of the band leave the stage to singer Rosanna Lefevre as, accompanied by Gough on sparse keyboard accompaniment, she delivers a spine-tingling rendition of Fade To Grey from the New World album, shorn of its bombastic moments to leave it as a thing of almost fragile beauty, keeping every person in the room entranced. Notes pure enough to shatter glassware are hit towards the end as Rosanna delivers a performance of magnificently restrained elegance. At the end the applause is explosive.

The set proper closes with a massive and triumphal Find A Way, at which point applause is deservedly but very nicely directed toward Jez King’s young daughter Neve, whose beautiful vocal at the end of the recorded track is played over the PA. Lefevre is again immense during this showstopping number, and it cements its place as a born set-closer. Any pretence at going off before an encore is dispensed with (when you have to walk off the front of the stage it’s tricky to pull off anyhow!) and the band carry straight on with another unexpected visit back to the first album to dust off the old crowd favourite Harmonix.

A strident Rosanna Lefevre commands the stage as Jez King also strikes a firm pose

It’s testament now to the depth of quality material that IO Earth have at their disposal that they can play a set missing a string of big favourites such as Finest Hour, Turn Away, The Rising and more, yet leave no-one feeling short-changed. Certainly the overwhelming feeling in the venue after the performance was one of elation. Barring the odd sound gremlin, I did not hear one single word of complaint either about the song selection or the performance, which is something quite rare given the naturally grumbling nature of many rock fans, present company included! They say it’s very hard to please all of the people all of the time. IO Earth seemed to please them all tonight, without a shadow of a doubt.