A new IO Earth album is always a matter for rejoicing. Not only have they produced symphonic prog of the highest order for the best part of 10 years, but they’ve built a fan base that’s more like a family than a conventional audience. Solitude, however, is particularly welcome as it’s new vocalist Rosanna Lefevre’s debut on an IO Earth record.
Lefevre has an immediate impact. Where previous vocalist Linda Odinsen brought clean Scandinavian precision to recordings, Lefevre brings darker rock and blues sensibilities to bear. On the serious and heavy Breakdown, Lefevre demonstrates that she has technique to spare – few could so easily reach a note so high it might shatter glass, but it’s her lower register and mid-range that give IO Earth a new emotional centre.
Long-time fans may be wondering how Solitude shapes up against 2015’s A New World. Leaving aside the vocal shifts, Solitude is arguably IO Earth’s darkest record yet. Certainly, all the things we’ve come to love from Dave Cureton and co are there – grand symphonic sweeps, flashes of metal, extraordinary guitar wig-outs and vast songs – but Solitude is unquestionably the more affecting record. It explores themes of depression, loneliness, courage and connection in a way that’s both personal yet universal. When Cureton sings, ‘I feel so alone inside… but you understand my mind,’ on the epic Race Against Time, it reveals layers of sensitivity that the casual prog fan might not expect. It should become a live favourite.
Solitude also feels more confident than A New World. That album produced some stone-cold live classics such as Colours and New World, but Solitude relies less on bangs-and-whistles. Opener Solitude is an object lesson in patience and judgement. It dares to take the first third of its seven-minute run time on scene setting, Cureton offering a mesmeric ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ count over minimalistic key washes, strings and Lefevre’s spooky vocals. It could be disastrous. Instead, its bravado pays off. When the track finally explodes, it delivers thrills and chills.
In case anyone thinks Cureton and Adam Gough have gone all fey and forgotten how to rock, Solitude remains unafraid of some powerful progressive wig-outs. The band’s core duo have always had a gift for melody, but this album shows new maturity. The soloing from sax player Luke Shingler, as well as Cureton on Madness, is jaw-dropping, but they never lose sight of the song.
Solitude represents a fantastic addition to the IO Earth catalogue. It’s a step forward and its 75 minutes will leave
you delighted, thrilled and almost certainly emotionally wrung out.