Iona peer Hubble-like further into the unseen and give us a sonic Dali landscape painted by Turner: inspired, evocative, and yet conveyed with a breathy mistiness.
Label: Open Sky (www.iona.uk.com)
Time: 6 +9 tracks, 44 + 51 mins (Bonus music on a separate disc set)
Some of Iona’s single albums have pushed the capacity of the CD format, but even 80 minutes was too short for this batch of tracks and having two discs to spread their Celtic prog across has possibly brought out their most chilled approach yet. While it doesn’t make Journey into the Morn sound like their tribute to Motorhead, the early tracks are more conventional, with fewer reels, and it slows right down later on the fifteen-minute “An Atmosphere of Miracles.”
This suits the theme. Another Realm is largely about the unseen spiritual world that touches this one. Iona gives us the sound of wonder.
Several years on from The Circling Hour, this felt like a new start for the band, and from the listener’s perspective it both is and isn’t. Many of the core characteristics are there: near permanent keyboard washes, bursts of ecstatic guitar, Celtic twists, times when Frank van Essen gives up his crisply beefy drums for violin, Joanne Hogg’s pure vocals and the obligatory epic.
But each release has its own characteristics and this could be the most overtly spiritual release they have made. Yes, they have always been about the faith that spread through the UK from the island of their name and it has coloured nearly every instrumental piece they have produced. But here there is a new intensity: less about God-related things and more about God himself; less about geographical places and more about the cosmos; and here they peer Hubble-like further and further into the unseen.
Even though there is pushing one hundred minutes of music here, you could probably count the loud bits on the fingers of one hand. “An Atmosphere of Miracles,” which is its longest piece (albeit arguably three bits joined together) is well-served by its title – and those who think that the loud stuff is saved for the second disc might think again when the first six minutes of that (“Ruach”) is little more than violin and cymbal rides with breezy synth blowing gently through it. The next track “Speak to Me” also drifts along at sloth pace. Diametrically opposite the Paul Simons and Alex Turners of this world, who try to cram their overflowing lyrics into verses that struggle to contain them, here the lyrics have to wait until the instruments have had their say. I calculate it as a scant 2.5 lines per minute on the second disc.
But the music gains an evenness, avoiding the band’s Kells-era tendency to create a mood in longer pieces and then blast a noisy section into it.
The first disc is a true worship album. It prayerfully yearns for God to move (“Ancient Wells”) and to come close (“Let your Glory Fall”). The title track and “Clouds” both explore the otherness of God and how it can break into our world, then the excellent and somewhat free-form “Atmosphere of Miracles” both describes a sense of the numinous, while bringing it on. It is one of Hogg’s best ever performances. Her wordless vocals on this haven of ambient wonder are the most Clannad-esque thing Iona has done since Moya Brennan guested in the ‘90s, showing the mellow warmth in her voice. Yet at the end of the track, her rapturous proclamation that “Our King is here with us!” is possibly the most memorable part of the whole project – and wonderful to experience live in a secular setting.
The first disc alone would be a fine release, but the second makes it a banquet. After “Ruach” comes a short batch of ballads that feature Jo Hogg and have a more Celtic feel, although a couple of these are less than memorable. New piper Martin Nolan gets a chance to feature on “And the Angels Dance” (a phrase that the box set notes reveal Hogg has been playing with for years). As often happens with jigs and reels, the studio account doesn’t quite have the bounce that it does live, but this celebration is still one of the stronger tracks here.
Direct and with a tricky time-signature, “Let the Waters Flow” is another highlight in the “Woven Cord” and “Castlerigg” vein of near-instrumentals. It leads into a final section that seems to switch to a Book of Kells sound. The arresting shofar cries (ram’s horn) of “The Fearless Ones” recall its more haunting moments, while the Christology of “Saviour” and “White Horse” echo the gospel heart of that album.
At times Iona have frustrated us with a sense that a killer hook or melody could be just around the corner, but doesn’t want to show its face. Hard work and stunningly talented musicianship have often filled that gap. That criticism could be applied to this release. Sometimes the verse melodies lack dynamic and depend on a strong chorus to carry the weight (“Saviour”); at others it is an exciting burst of pipes or one of Dave Bainbridge's (too) short, emotional guitar solos that lifts a track that extra notch, as they do early on disc one.
On this collection, they fearlessly and consistently create sweeping images of the invisible. I once described Journey into the Morn as “a sonic cathedral,” but that label may fit this release – especially the first disc – more snugly.
Companion Disc: Because this is already a double-disc set, the companion disc is paired with Snowdonia and is reviewed as part of that set.