These lockdown instrumental pieces, based on Iona tracks, are part of over nine hours of bonus material in the band’s box set The Book of Iona.
Label: Open Sky (via Gonzo multimedia)
Time: 14 tracks / 69 minutes
This is a year of lockdown collaborations and that well describes this collection inspired by Iona’s previous work, involving someone from every line up of the band. Most tracks are by just one or two players plus producer Dave Bainbridge, so there is a reflective lightness to the album, which is only available as part of the new box set of all their studio albums, each re-released with a companion disc, giving a huge amount of quality music for £125 (great value at just over £7 per disc).
The superb starter “So Far Away” is a Mike Haughton sax piece with soft keys backing, based on the lovely “Edge of the World” tune. Its sparse and yearning sound is a pleasure enough, but when the gorgeous melody appears, it takes the track to a new level. In the liner notes, Bainbridge comments, “It really feels like St Brendan’s final prayer before he left his beloved home to sail into the unknown.”
Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley takes the wonderful “Wave after Wave” and gives it a slower, more traditional bent on both Uilleann pipes and guitar. The result is predictably magnificent. I don’t think that it is my imagination to hear Frank van Essen adding snatches of the same tune to his violin improvisation based on “Fragment (of a Fiery Sun) ,” one of two pieces by him.
Along the same lines, Nick Beggs re-works “White Sands” with his Chapman Stick. This is a clearer and longer version than the original, with the guitar arpeggios higher in the mix, and proportionately more of them than the melody, so that it feels a little repetitive at the start. Bainbridge has added brief “orchestral sounds” behind the piece as it builds.
Capturing the wider spread of Iona (this was never a band recording), but keeping the Celtic sound, piper Martin Nolan re-records his “Air from France” with Bainbridge, a piece the pair occasionally performed live.
It is remarkable how distinctive David Fitzgerald’s whistles are. Accompanying the harp track “Dun I” (named after a hill on the island of Iona) the track is originally on the companion disc to “Book of Kells.” Here it sounds like it could have been part of the self-titled début.
Bainbridge gets to produce a few pieces on his own, such as electric guitar versions of “Luke - the Calf” (which has an effect a little like the start of Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”) and the Gaelic hymn “Angel of God,” as well as an acoustic improv over a “Beyond These Shores” backing. On piano, he plays the folk tune “I will Give my Love an Apple” and a particularly beautiful rendition of “Today,” its slowness transforming the piece, a joy that lasts over eight minutes. This is exactly what I hoped his solo piano album was going to be like.
Bassist Tim Harries’ sound collage of tracks from Journey into the Morn has its moments, particularly bass work over a drum loop and bursts of keys. But the first three minutes (before the drums kick in) have very little cohesion, and bursts of familiar songs that disappear as quickly as they arrived simply distract and kill any mood.
There is more, such as "Bright Sun" that closes the disc, a more dramatic electric Celtic piece based on the end reel from “Heaven’s Bright Sun.”
Overall, this is a fine instrumental collection, with its fresh interpretations a bit like the sound version of looking at a landscape through coloured glass: you can recognise key forms, but the whole has a more impressionistic style that makes it all feel fresh - and those who buy the box set also get a discount on a follow-up disc coming shortly.