Image © Open Sky Records 2006
Woven Cord (1999)
The River Flows (2002)
Rotherham Rocks (2002)
University of London (2004)
Veil of Gossamer (2004)
Songs for Luca (2003)
Iona (DVD) (2003)
Iona - Live In London (DVD) (2005)
(20 August 2007) The Circling Hour (Open Sky Records (UK) Records
OPENVP11CD, 2007) is the latest studio album from the progressive/Celtic rock group, Iona. A group who have existed since the late 1980s, and have presented a number of releases that range from their self-titled debut release Iona, which focused upon the Island of which the band based their name, to live recordings with the All Souls Orchestra, such as can be heard on Woven Chord. After 2000's release Open Sky the band went on a hiatus of sorts, yet returned with a live DVD release filmed in London that surfaced in November 2006 and hopes of proving to their loyal fan base that this latest album, released last year, was well worth the wait.
The album opens with Joanne Hogg's serene vocals drifting over lush waves of keyboard before the thunderous wall of Frank Van Essen's crashing drum work, Dave Bainbridge's frenetic guitars and Troy Donockley's Uilleann pipes join the fray in a passage that truly catches your breath and takes you by suprise. The drums soon calm to a more steady pace and Joanne's hauntingly beautiful vocals return and carry the song onwards. From this opening song "Empyrean Dawn" alone, what is instantly apparent is the breadth and space each member of the band is allowed to showcase their talents. The production is perfectly crafted, by Dave Bainbridge himself, so as to not drown out any instrument which is a vital tool towards the overall sound, in particular Joanne's flowing vocals which are allowed to soar atop the rich and powerful instrumentation.
"Children Of Time" holds a swaying drum pattern and delicate piano backing yet is lifted by a euphoric chorus which again presents Joanne as a truly exceptional vocal talent. One who compliments these organic sounds to perfection. "Strength" presents an uplifting lyrical message as Joanne sings of the beauty of this world and its gift to us if we wish to appreciate just what it can give. An inspiring piece which retains a steady pace and relaxed feel throughout and again Joanne helps carry the song to that next level. Eleven minute epic "Wind Off The Lake" again showcases Troy Donockley's pipe skills as a they entwine with Dave Banbridge's melodic guitar work to create a Celtic-infused jig-like feel to the song. Closing with layered vocals and the tinkling of wind chimes, this one would certainly get a crowd moving if performed live with it's electric pace and breathless energy.
The second half of the album, whilst not quite as strong as the stellar opening, continues to present a highly moving blend of exciting instrumentation and spectacular vocal work. Opening piece "Wind" to the three-part instrumental "Wind, Water & Fire" features heart-wrenching violins sweeping through soft layers of mournful keyboard before drifting into "Water," the second part of the trilogy. In an attempt to retain the feel of each element that the song portrays, the sinking feeling of floating amongst the waves is created via echoing drum work and graceful vocals which rise and fall as the drumming grows in its volume and intensity before exploding into the final part, "Fire." A furious rush of fast-paced guitar lines and pipes carries the song forward as they glide alongside the fierce clattering of drums.
Album closer "Fragment Of A Fiery Sun" is the shortest piece on the album. Clocking in at a mere 2.45 minutes it's the perfect way to close an album of this nature, as Joanne's opening whispers from "Empyrean Dream" are repeated in a final closure, amongst a stunning mixture of subtle piano, shimmering keyboards, and the straining notes of a violin. It's a truly emotional ending, and one which leaves the listener in a state of awe and reflection at the end of the roller-coaster ride this album has taken them on.
Iona have managed to create something quite special within The Circling Hour. Throughout the album's 65-minute length, the space and room given for each instrument is balanced to a level where the listener feels enwrapped inside a world of sound as each layer drifts and becomes immersed within the next. Dave Bainbridge's melodic guitar work is as inventive as ever whilst Troy Donockley's pipes add an extra dimension to each song, never overplayed or feeling out of place. Joanne Hogg proves herself to be a powerful front-woman, with her voice drifting from soft and serene whispers to soaring rushes of strength, when the music rises in it intensity.
Most importantly, the album retains an aura of beauty and indescribable magic within its tapestry. One which is captured through the carefully crafted and diverse song-writing and inspiring lyrical content. Lyrics which are filled with refreshing hope and promise for the world we live in, an ideal companion to such organic and earthly music. It may have taken them half a decade to create it, but with The Circling Hour,
Iona have forged what is possibly their best album to date yet. Surely then, it was most certainly worth the wait.--Jim Hall in Derby, England and Russ Elliot in New York