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Journey into the Morn (2009 re-issue)
Label: Open Sky / Voiceprint
Time: CD: 14 Tracks / 78 mins
Back in 2002, Iona re-mastered their first three albums, packed them all up with a bonus disc and sold them as the boxed set The River Flows." This was their first release on their own label, Open Sky. It has taken fourteen years for this fourth disc to receive an Open Sky release, but it is well worth highlighting it, partly because we scandalously have no review in our archives, and also because it is one of their best – the 1995 original even reaching Q Magazine’s top 50 albums of the year. Many fans will already either own this disc or have several of its key tracks on live albums, hence the low profile of this re-issue; but for those who don’t, this is a unique release (with far improved artwork) that is seriously worth investigating.
The CD, based loosely around the hymn “Be Thou my Vision,” catches Iona’s line-up in a state of flux. The rhythm section was still Terl Bryant and Tim Harries, while Mike Haughton still played whistles, saxes and flutes alongside the whistles and pipes of Troy Donockley, who is now a full, integral member of the band.
Probably more than any other Iona band project, this is a chilled, ethereal work that fits the mystery and majesty of the theme. Yes, ‘proper’ songs like “Irish Day” and “Inside my Heart,” have a more traditional structure and could work as singles, but often the music is more varied, slower and lighter, frequently dreamlike and drifting, but always with purpose.
As one who doesn’t like beautiful, long atmospheric pieces to suddenly rock out or go discordant for a few minutes, I find the evenness and lack of interruptions on Journey into the Morn gives the listener the strength of Iona without the band’s occasional weakness.
Although a best-of followed Journey, it only borrowed material from their previous three albums. However after that came two live recordings, so several of these songs will be known to fans with those compilations. They include “Encircling,” which is this release’s traditional ‘epic’ track; the two parter “Bi-Sé I Mo Shuil,” the Celtic version of the theme song; “Heaven’s Bright Sun,” an instrumental that builds until it peaks as Celtic prog; and “Irish Day”. “Inside my Heart” is an inspiring prayer of a track, which coaxes expressions of devotion from the listener hungry for God’s spirit. If there were one piece to show the qualities of the band, this could be it. Joanne Hogg’s vocal performance is pure, tender and heartfelt, clear over a crisp acoustic bed, then leading to one of Dave Bainbridge’s stronger guitar solos before fading with a short, stately synth wash. “Heaven’s Bright Sun” is the template for much of the band’s later work, where Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes solo rockingly and interlock with Bainbridge’s playing. “When I Survey” balances power and restraint as it sits on a chassis of percussion to allow the full force of Hogg’s expressive, emotive vocals to come across.
I was struck, though, by the quality of songs which never made any compilations. “Wisdom” has its delicious high bass runs; “Everything Changes” – where Moya Brennan adds her distinctive breathy vocals – is similarly inspired by scripture and beautifully portrays the impermanence of that which is not God, while casting a sideswipe at the haste in which we are prepared to ditch the good that time can build: “The rain looks clear ’til you see its stain / So much seems safe to touch, but later feel the pain”.
Technically, Journey into the Morn is impeccable, with guest appearances from the world-class musicians like Brennan and Robert Fripp. Despite all the variety on the disc, its integrity means that when heard as a whole, its effect is more than the sum of its parts. It is a musical cathedral to sit in and wonder, and let moments of vision catch you.