IO Earth — Aura
Birmingham's IO Earth are a heavy, symphonically-inclined prog band. They have released four studio albums since their formation in 2007. One of which, New World, was my favourite album of 2015 (review here). For some reason I seemed to have missed entirely their last release, 2018's Solitude, which introduced their new singer Rosanna Lefevre.
IO Earth's new release Aura presents a change of emphasis, if not direction, for the band. Founder members and songwriters Dave Cureton (guitars, vocals) and Adam Gough (keyboards, vocals) decided to take a different approach to this new release in order to "explore the melodies deeper [and] allow them to take life and grow". This involved a move away from their mix of heavy prog with symphonic prog, into arrangements that emphasise the melody's texture and atmosphere. They have brought elements of ambient prog and a Floyd-like stature to the songs, in a way that transcends the influences and fully engages the listener in a new, yet still somehow familiar, take on the IO Earth experience.
On a first listen these eight tracks seem to be quite similar in tone and feel, but further listens reveal depths of emotion along with a bravura in trying something different. Dave Cureton's pleasingly-deep voice takes most of the lead vocals on Aura . He doesn't try to force his voice out of a convivial talking style. In this he echoes Kevin Ayres, and it suits these intimate songs, counterpointing the layers of melody. This leaves Rosanna Lefevre to produce lovely, wordless melodies, layering them into choral structures as the melodies grow.
The title track sets this all in motion with its stately-paced layers of keyboards that develop slowly around Christian Nokes' bass guitar pulses. Dave Cureton's guitar solo sails Gilmour-esque over the melody, as subtle changes in tempo and dynamics keep the whole song in focus. Jez King's violin comes to the fore in quieter sections, adding to the delicacy and emotive melodicism that IO Earth have discovered with this new approach to music-making.
Nothing on Aura feels rushed as they take the time to explore the melodies. The terrific Waterfall takes eleven-plus minutes to move from a Tangerine Dream opening of pulsing electronics and synth washes, out of which a piano melody appears, punctuated by Tim Wilson's drums and the vocals of Rosanna Lefevre. She also takes lead vocals on this one, as it strips back to her and the piano. Violin and keys advance the song before a guitar solo arrives. The drums push it forward to a flute-led coda. This may be the best track I have heard from IO Earth.
Introduced by Luke Shingler's soprano sax, Breathe moves into orchestral-led atmospherics, with violin, other strings, ominous piano chords and chanted vocals. Here there is jazzy snare work and a nod to Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden but without the Miles Davis' inflections. The shorter Resonance I has just as much packed in, with Mellotron keys, wordless vocals, orchestral touches, tubular bells and an off-the-chart operatic climax.
The development of the songs have surprising elements. On the densely melodic Circles there is a mid-point break, and the expected fret-burning guitar solo is avoided, for atmospheric but quiet electronics, before the slow build up to the song's conclusion. This is followed by Aura's most heartfelt song, Shadows, about post-traumatic stress disorder. The subject fits the new style well.
The closing tracks, Resonance II and The Rain, work as a pair, underpinned by electronics and keyboard washes that remind me of Unitopia's The Garden. Rosanna Lefevre's vocal melody has a folk feel to it and its upbeat sections have Dave Cureton playing funky licks as it progresses without pomposity. The only thing is, that it ends in a longish sample of rain that could have been shorter. A minor complaint though. The only thing I have wished for in the past is that this band would make use of the potential for solos, other than those featuring electric guitar, and here some move has been made towards making use of keys, violin and sax in their repertoire in a more forward way.
IO Earth's Aura shows that this talented band could possibly do anything musically. This album is an ambitious take on prog-led ambience and they have made it sound like a natural part of their sound-world, rather than an add-on. IO Earth are a band with a widescreen vision and on Aura they deliver it in full 70mm glory.
The band discussed how to present this seeming left-turn to their existing fans, floating the idea of 'slow-prog', but I think they would be better using the short hand of 'power-ambient'. Aura is mature, heartfelt and at times achingly-beautiful, with a graceful, melodic authority. Don't miss this.
With a well structured formula in place, a band can often feel safe within the scope of their established sound. IO Earth have a powerful symphonic rock sound that has grown their fan-base over the past 4 studio albums. Yet, whilst being boldly diverse in style, scoring music which captures world music flavours, they have often trended towards a heavier format. Aura takes some of the elements of their mystical 2012 release, Moments and simmers it down further.
The tranquil opening strains of the title track are minimal and atmospheric; a big shift from their musically-dense and thunderous Solitude (2018). This approach serves the structure and approach of the whole album, and in losing the majority of the chugging, power chord-heavy guitar, and lightening the bottom-end in the drum sound, the attitude of this album is powerful in its sparse, symphonic textures.
Aura itself would not feel out of place on the Division Bell with a vocal sounding Wright present to match the Gilmour flavoured guitar. IO Earth can still mark their own style to this influence and the track simmers beautifully before crashing to an almost sexual climax.
There's more beauty to appreciate here, and tonally it's lighter and more spiritual than the antsy and sometimes dark previous release. Less urgent than its predecessor, Waterfall's delicate thrum takes a good while to get started before the soft, pattering drums and delicate piano begin. Nothing on this album is in a hurry, which is a good thing. An ethereal vocal that resembles more of a chant, evokes a hint of the late 90s Enigma and some of Moby's looping phrasing. A high point of the album, there is a delicate piano which shines with its grandeur and infectious melody. Vocalist Rosanna Lefevre adds to this with an emotional, heartfelt performance making the hairs stand up on the back of the neck.
With guitarist Dave Cureton dialling back the guitars throughout, the songs have space to elevate from symphonic, towards cinematic excellence and none more so than the beautifully ephemeral Resonance I and the whispery sequel, Resonance II; the latter neatly tying parts of the album together with a reprise of Waterfall's motifs.
The lullaby quality of the short but sweet Circles would appeal to fans of Anathema in its dreamy brushstrokes, sometimes fading into almost nothingness, all the while keeping a vital pulse going.
Cureton, Adam Gough and the band have been delivering technically-enthralling work for more than a decade, and yet their best work to-date lies within this album. This release is cohesive and familiar, yet full of surprises, which engages the listener from start to finish. The slow-building characteristics offer a minimalistic sophistication which bravely reduces down the technicality of the individual, giving rise to something potent and successful. No doubt this should be thought of as one of 2020's best albums.