The first sound on Circuit des Yeux‘s -io is that of a deep breath, likely Haley Fohr herself in an act of cleansing or renewal before the experience to come. It feels like a necessary ritual of meditation in anticipation of what certainly sounds like the biggest and most intense album of Fohr’s catalog thus far; the swell of strings that follows even seems to suggest the steep climb of a roller coaster before plunging at full speed. But that one, brief moment of calm also feels necessary in the context of nearly two years of fear, rancor, isolation and tragedy.
Fohr describes -io as “a place where everything is ending all the time,” permeated by grief and darkness. The events that she experienced leading up to the creation of the album would seem to compound that idea, in the past two years the Chicago singer/songwriter having cared for her terminally ill grandmother, lost a friend to suicide, and experienced a major episode of depression—her first since she was a teenager. Reaching back into those experiences, it’s easy to conclude, might require the act of steeling oneself, of offering yourself an act of gentleness of kindness before making the descent. Much as the album must have been to create, -io is an overwhelming thing to experience.
While -io is dark, even mournful, it’s incredibly beautiful. On past albums such as 2015’s In Plain Speech or 2017’s Reaching for Indigo, Fohr creating innovative and otherworldly sounds through relatively humble but increasingly more ambitious means. With -io, she’s made her first proper set of orchestral art-pop, many of these songs realizing the kind of expansive, climactic potential that her past records have often suggested even at their most stripped down. Fohr’s a powerful songwriter and a vocalist with a singular, mesmerizing presence, but on a song like the sprawling journey of a dirge “Neutron Star,” there’s a suitably immense arrangement of strings to match the fire in her throat.
As often as Fohr’s journey takes her to the brink of apocalypse, -io isn’t so much bleak or defeatist as it is hopeful in the face of the impending storm. The most catastrophic moment is within its first song, the tense and dramatic “Vanishing,” wherein Fohr depicts a scene of total destruction: “Fading, falling, melting, sinking!” And not too long thereafter, she addresses the tumult within, on “Walking Toward Winter” singing, “You know that there’s an avalanche inside me/And it’s ready to flow.” But -io still arcs toward a brighter horizon. Against the hypnotic pulse of “Dogma,” the first single and the album’s most immediately accessible moment, she seeks a path of healing: “Tell me how to feel right/Tell me how to see the light.” And in the gentle, acoustic closer “Oracle Song,” she even offers herself some care and affection, ending the album with, “I’d give you every inch I have to keep that first soul from going bad.”
In a “listening guide” that accompanies the album, Fohr suggests taking a break halfway through the album; “-io is a novel, not a movie,” she suggests, and it’s sound advice. There are heavier albums, more difficult albums, denser albums, and -io doesn’t demand an excess of time to listen from beginning to end. It’s merely an expression of grace from an artist that understands the weight of what she’s created, and that perhaps it’s worth taking that extra breath before taking up the rest of the journey. However one chooses to confront it, -io is a complete and cohesive work, a breathtaking and ambitious act of catharsis.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.