August 13, 2023

IO Earth have delivered the goods once again. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such an intelligent and complex prog rock album that is so abounding in creativity, and so emotionally intense.

Progressive music is more than half a century old so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of prog-by-numbers groups around that are happy to imitate what has gone before. If you’re not familiar with IO Earth then there’s one thing I can assure you: IO Earth is not in that category. There’s something genuinely different about each of their releases – and often about each song within an album – and that makes their catalogue so fascinating. Basically, they haven’t missed a stroke since being founded in 2007, thanks above all to the extraordinarily talented writing partnership of multi-instrumentalists Dave Cureton and Adam Gough. Sanctuary is the sixth studio album in the IO Earth story (in addition to which are one live and one acoustic release) and it will undoubtedly help cement their position as one of the leading lights in the British prog scene. For this new opus, a key line-up change has seen Rosanna Lefevre leave to be replaced by the singer she herself replaced, Linda Odinsen. Lefevre is a good singer but for me Odinson’s voice fits the IO Earth sound world to perfection, always managing to reflect the mood of a song, whether ethereal, vulnerable, forceful or epic.

While 2020’s Aura was generally well-received, the ambient feel to much of it may have got IO Earth devotees nervous about the general direction of the band. Here though, that ambient feel has been toned down considerably and there’s a return to a more regular prog sound.  That change is immediately evident in the opener, Outside, which mixes gentle acoustic guitar with jagged almost progressive metal guitar riffs. The song is capped off by a short but blistering guitar solo that concludes this powerful opener. In a nutshell, it announces that IO Earth are back as a hard rocking prog band. I rarely have cause to mention a Youtube video in a review but the one created for this song is quite stunning. Make sure you watch it!

After that intense opening, we get two slightly more straight forward songs (structurally, at least). Running has a bubbling dance-like rhythm in the verses before verging in to a slower anthemic chorus. The icing on the cake in Running is Odinsen’s operatic vocalising which gives the song a symphonic metal tinge. The title track also begins with a similar light and shade approach, slightly reminiscent of Evanescence, but the second part develops in a mostly sombre instrumental mood that the final guitar flourishes don’t quite manage to dispel.

Those first three tracks last around six minutes each. IO Earth fans would expect some longer material than this and they’ll be happy to see there are a further five pieces with a duration of between seven and nine minutes, and just one shorter five-minute track. This shorter track, Close By, packs as much emotional punch as anything else on the album though, despite its brevity. It’s made up of just one instrument – a piano – and one human voice – Odinsen’s, and the two threads weave their magic slowly in this gentle ballad. So slowly in fact that at the three-minute mark the music seems to almost come to a halt, as if in inner contemplation. It’s an excellent song and it works perfectly as a foil to the more complex and intense pieces that surround it.

Of the longer pieces, there are two that are clear standouts. The Child is dominated by some lengthy jaw-dropping guitar shredding, although to these ears the sublime atmospheric opening sequence of piano, ethereal voice and beautiful acoustic guitar work is equally impressive, as is the mournful cello to close the piece. As for the song Changes, could you imagine Annie Haslam singing Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir? That was the odd image that came to my mind listening to Odinsen as she sings a breath-defying drawn-out melody supported by increasingly intense waves of keys and guitars.  It’s a lusciously symphonic piece with a slightly Eastern feel to it, and it is totally irresistible. It’s brilliantly constructed too from the delicate string and flute interplay that opens (and closes) the piece to the clever way the music gradually gathers pace without you realising it.

It would be petty to complain that other songs aren’t up to the level of masterpieces such as The Child or Changes, but in comparison Airborne and Sunrise do disappoint a little.  Airborne has some great guitar moments, including some outstanding progressive metal guitar riffing near the end but the main part of the song has an uninspiring melody which combined with the very slow pace gives the feel of running through treacle (of course, it’s possible that this is what the band intended me to feel!). Sunshine is driven by a heavy riff but like Airborne seems a little ponderous, although there’s a memorable mood-changing moment when the music stops dead to allow Luke Shingler’s soaring sax to take centre-stage.

Won’t Be Afraid closes the album with Odinsen taking centre-stage again in a song which sounds almost made for the West End stage. It’s a gentle piece that moves along at an unhurried pace before arriving at an emotional climax. Lyrically, it seems to be positive and hopeful but there’s a brief coda that concludes with Odinsen simply singing ‘The darkness descends’. That phrase echoes the opening words and melody of the song but not the full phrase (‘The darkness descends. You are the light’), thus leaving one wondering whether there is a happy ending after all. The other question is whether this is a concept album. I wasn’t clever enough to work that out, I’m afraid, but there are hints of a common theme. There may also be a hint in the album cover which if you look at fleetingly looks like a woman’s head with the tail of a snake hanging out of her mouth. You need to look attentively to see where the serpent’s head is.

IO Earth have delivered the goods once again. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such an intelligent and complex prog rock album that is so abounding in creativity, and so emotionally intense. It really is a sanctuary from all the prog-by-numbers nonsense out there!