This may be surprisingly sub-par for Iona, but its Celtic moments make it well worth its place in the box set.
Label: Open Sky
Time: 11 tracks, 65 mins / Bonus: 20 tracks, 72 mins
It must have been difficult knowing where to go after the quality of what they had recently released – two five-star albums in their last three, with a critically acclaimed one in between.
But whichever direction they wanted to take this album, it falls short of the previous offernigs. If they needed more solidity after the ethereal ecstasy of Open Sky, then where are the “Revelation”s and “Wave after Wave”s? If they wanted to continue in the mistiness of their previous release, for all its ambience, parts 1 and 2 of “Wind, Water and Fire” don’t have the majesty and ecstasy of “Songs of Ascent,” or leave a sense of peace like that album.
Over the years, I have found this to be the least inspiring Iona album, and I have been so niggled by “Strength” (despite its cascading guitar line) and left strangely unmoved by the decent “Factory of Magnificent Souls” that I had not listened enough to the album to appreciate the real wealth tucked elsewhere inside it.
There are very fine tracks here, and it is when they touch that Celtic fire that they come most alive. “Children of Time” is adapted from words in “The Irish Book of Celtic Poetry” and its bubbling stream of pipes and whistles (echoing an earlier piano line) is infectious and addictive. The traditional, and almost instrumental, “Wind off the Lake” is a magnificent, energetic Uilleann pipes-led jig that sounds like the very definition of Celtic rock. Its welcome eleven minutes makes space for two guitar solos. Troy Donockley’s “Skymaps” is also a terrific piece (except for where the repetitive vocal phrase “notice how” comes in and drains its tremendous energy).
Iona often tuck lovely tracks in the shadow of longer or more dramatic pieces, and here that track is “No Fear in Love,” with its natural and striking chorus.
It’s another of their songs connecting the wonder of creation with its wonderful creator. That theme is key in this lyrically rich and poetic album, starting with a whispered, “How wonderful this world; a fragment of a fiery sun” – a line that also appears as a refrain in “Strength” and reprises as the title of the final track.
Continuing the theme in “Empyrean Dawn,” they add these two poetic verses to the Frederick Pratt Green hymn:
“How wonderful this life
No random path this great design
How fragile and how bold
The mystery of creative thought
The wonder of the human frame
Of spirit and of soul.
When life within the nidus wakes
The formless taking shape unfolds
How complex and how strange
The heart created free to choose
That quintessential breath is given
In love's own image born.”
(I'll save you looking it up, like I had to: Nidus means "a place or situation in which something develops or is fostered.")
Adding to their clutch of contemporary lyrics is “Factory of Magnificent Souls,” an earworm song version of (former Tollbooth contributor) Steve Stockman’s poem about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment.
As well as his distinctive violin work, Frank van Essen has some impressive moments on drums, adding the right rhythms and livening tracks that could be flat without his attention. It’s there in “Children of Time” and “Skymaps:” no pyrotechnics, but a solid skeleton for the music to enflesh.
The birth of this album was tricky, the 6-year wait from Open Sky including a couple of babies being born, changing contracts to form their own label, releasing solo albums and remastering old ones. So if there is a loss of momentum, this must have contributed.
Companion Disc: The first demos show just how different finished tracks can be from the ideas that sparked them, as words and tune both changed before becoming “Empyrean Dawn” (instead of “The Ever-beating Sea”). Later on, an unused track “Faith” became “No Fear in Love,” but it is again pretty unrecognisable.
A frustration for me with this disc is that it covers fewer of the strongest tracks, and the five accounts of “Strength” would appear to make a repetitive tune even more so. The vocals are also flat on the first two.
That said, the latter three are actually different mixes of elements from the song, designed for use on the Live in London DVD menu. I found these more satisfying than the actual song, being based on the chorus, their reverb-laden vocals sounding softly exotic.
There are some other gems on here. The demo for “Children of Time” is Bainbridge’s original instrumental idea and a joy, majoring as it does on the rippling keys riff. And from this album onwards the home studios were of such a standard that some elements of demos even ended up on finished albums. It certainly shows on Donockley’s instrumental version of his “Skymaps,” the perfect, untainted version, free of the “notice how” lyrics that feel badly shoehorned in.
Some 28 minutes of completely new tracks are included, from draft ideas (pleasant acoustic jamming from Bainbridge and Donockley, and an electric sketch) to songs that either ended up on a Hogg solo album, or were adapted from one for the BBC Songs of Praise show.