This Is What Progressive Rock Means to Me

By Thomas Szirmay
IO Earth has released two celebrated studio albums that made some serious waves within the prog community, supplying a modern curve to the well-travelled neo-prog rock genre by infusing some quite brilliant vocals, such as those by Steve Balsamo, who also participated on the Rob Reed (Magenta) Kompendium project. Strange coincidence (not) because IO Earth sounds like a proggier version of Magenta in more ways than one. Both the debut album and the amazing follow-up “Moments” really took us all by storm, etching in their name into the ‘next bright light’ prog pioneer category. After a few illness related changes, the lovely and highly talented Linda Odinsen takes over the microphone and does so very convincingly. Back are leaders Dave Cureton (Guitars, keys and vox) and Adam Gough (Keys, guitars and vox), as well as bassist Christian Nokes. New drummer Christian Jerromes adds even more punch than before while Luke Shingler adds stellar sax and flute work and Jez King supplies violin and added guitar to the line-up.
They pack quite a wallop, indeed! The mammoth 2 CD “New World” offers up a lavish cover with vivid artwork, sterling production and a tremendous amount of musical flair and bravado. The mood here is decidedly more bombastic, perhaps even heavier than ever before, but maintaining all those IO Earth elements that made the other two albums such complete treasures. Namely, slick modern beats allied with shimmering old school Celtic touches, some delirious Gregorian chanting (I love that choral stuff!) and simply wicked playing by this seasoned and tight crew, the guitar solos are particularly vivacious and the arrangements constantly on the “qui vive”, like some alert sentry safeguarding a super-secret site. The music is all over the map, with some heavy rock moments, traditional touches as well as chorale spookiness. But the aural dynamics of serene to thunderous are clearly defined and wholly unexpected.
To kick off a gargantuan opus with a romantic ditty like “Move As One” only serves to showcase their grasp of melody and beauty, cello ablaze and passionate voice up front and centre. And follow that with a steamroller progressive rocker such as the zesty “Redemption”, a bruising bass torpedo heading out to slam and slam hard, in unison with sweeping string synths, sizzling lead guitar and tectonic drumming, hell, this is my kind of vibrant and nicely bitchy prog!
“Journey to Discovery” has very little disco, as it’s another heavy symphonic onslaught of molten riffs that wink at Ayreon and Rocket Scientists but in a way more exciting envelope. Linda sings or rather howls with determined frenzy (“yayaya”), the sense of speed and travel quite obvious and delightful. The swirling romanticism of a suave track like “Trance” is particularly addictive, a typical IO Earth track full of both originality and toughness. These musicians are connoisseurs of the extremes that are well within their expertise, displaying Gregorian choirs ( a perennial trademark) to add to the insanity, choppy modern drum patterns and a definite hypnotic quality that sustains their need to progress beyond the clichéd styles that abound within the more vocal anointed prog genres.
On a lovely piece like “Morning”, the mood lightens up a fair bit, evoking folkier slants that perhaps wink at other female-fronted bands such as Magenta, Mostly Autumn and such. Linda Odinsen shows off her pipes, fragrant Crimsonian flutes as a chaperone, then a simply executed electric guitar solo that is all blues and hues before a more exuberant finale that just explodes, out of nowhere. Then immediately fall back on the noxious and volcanic “Collision”, a twisting and turning guided heat seeking missile that is in the clouds, invisible one moment (ruminating violin) and suddenly bearing down on your ass the next. Gothic monstrosity like some sonic King Tiger tank gone berserk, crushing, pummelling and relentless, this is perfect modern prog that every fan of any denomination would simply bow to. Both Jerromes and Frank Zappa alumnus Ed Mann add tons of dynamic percussion to the epic conflagration.
“Fade to Grey” is not a remake of the Midge Ure penned Visage track of the 80s but a long excursion into the dark side, though the acoustic guitar intro might throw the listener for a temporary loop, insistent piano and lush voice not far behind. Fascinating stuff, moody and redolent atmosphere cut to ribbons by walls of bombastic symphonics that first startle and then enthral. Wow! When the sax does its foray into the fray, you just can’t help drooling. The slick fret board solo sears the speakers into a fulminating mass of plastic, before a return to the pastoral groove. The colossal and repetitive “fading to grey, paving the way” chorus seals the deal, with Linda sounding like Heart’s Ann Wilson (that is one hell of a compliment BTW). The first CD ends with the tenebrous “New World Suite”, a clearly symphonic piece that flirts with dense classicism and choral expression, an all-instrumental arrangement with a sweet synth solo finale.
CD2 wastes little time in making you fumble the giant sized popcorn bag, buttering the carpet as the screeching bravado busts through the stereo speakers. “Insomnia” is a nasty piece of work, commencing with sweeping dissonance and a sense of uncontrollable angst, only to detonate mercilessly when Linda clutches the microphone and invites the massed choir to intonate the title. This is a heavyweight sucker, full of surprises with thick and edgy moments, interspersed with a bizarre sax segment that has a definite Barbara Thompson? like feel, only to morph into a shocking double bass drum, heavy metal flurry, complete with a zingy guitar solo that will knock your socks (and your pyjamas) right off . The cinematic outro is a sensational finale.
IO Earth like to weave in some Indian influences on occasion as well (see “Cinta Indah” track on Moments) combining table percussion with more modern synthesiser runs as well as a whirling dervish guitar solo from Dave Cureton. So “Red Smoke” has those attributes and so much more, as the theme gets heavier towards the end. Smoking!
The images of 9-11 are reproduced on the instrumental masterpiece “The Rising”, understanding clearly the visual impact that incident has had on the entire planet, young and old , all connected to the media on that cloudless sunny day. The insistently sad guitar carves quite a long path, aided by a sweltering saxophone foray, both drenched in historical gloom but resolutely passionate. This is utterly gorgeous, to the point of heartache, Linda wailing a long “hooooooo”!
“Body and Soul” sets out as a melancholic piano and violin duet, until Linda intones a grieving lament, that suddenly explodes into this heavy ballad that sounds like Magenta on steroids, and then back to the sweet pastoral for a moment before another turn into the tempest, a brooding hurricane of sweeping mellotron strings, ballistic bass and demonic drumming, gritty guitars and Linda howling like a werewolf.
Ya want depth charges galore? Ya like boom-boom heavy rock? Two hard ones then for ya!
“Colours” is bloody stodgy, concrete and just plain nasty. Sharp rapier-like riffs and binary drum artillery give the band a windswept platform to push the limits far beyond, the mood more like Threshold than anything else. This is continued on the rabid “Follow” with male vocals (Dave Cureton) suggesting a doom-laden crescendo of darkness that is closer to the early Stranglers but armed with a killer guitar solo that sizzles, drizzles and fizzles.
“Dreams” again features a hushed and somnolent male vocal, a stylistic detour that implies a much wider palette than one might think. The brassy trumpet does the lilting mood great justice, I thought it was a long lost the Beloved track, done in a quasi-prog style. Very cool track and utterly ballsy. The ‘chaka-chaka’ drums are a blast.
Okay, this was one hell of a long catalog, with all kinds of styles and challenges, how do they finish up this recording? With the title track, silly you! And just like CD1, the intent is to rekindle the symphonic /cinematographic comfort zone, with a few unexpected twists. This time, Linda carries the tune with some operatic vocals, escorted by thunderous riffs, lightning fast rhythms, blitzing solos and mammoth melodies that serve as a kind of trailer or recap of what this album is all about. Celestial !
This is what progressive rock means to me, a vehicle for deeply melodious adventures, tremendous instrumental interplay and innovative symphonic arrangements that stretch the norms of rock music and finally, a delirious afterglow that yearns for one to return. Melancholic, taciturn, majestic, elegant and overpowering, the music is beyond the pale!
Another masterpiece in the prog pantheon. We all Owe Earth from now on!