(16 July 2011) Iona's latest release is a stunning two-CD set entitled Another Realm (Open Sky (UK) CD16, 2011). Provided as a gorgeous cardboard triple panel gatefold package with a full color booklet with band photos and full lyrics, the hour and a half collection is the UK band's first studio project since The Circling Hour (2006) and seventh studio album. Although there have been a few lineup changes, Another Realm celebrates the band's 23rd year of growth since their debut self-titled album release. Iona's albums and live performances have been reviewed extensively here and were named a Musical Discoveries featured artists in 1997.
Fronted by Joanne Hogg (vocals, keyboard, piano, beer shakers), Iona's current lineup includes stalwarts Dave Bainbridge (electric and acoustic guitars, bouzouki, piano, keyboards, autoharp, beer shakers); Frank van Essen (drums, percussion, violins, violas, electric violin, vocal, gockenspiel, keyboard); Phil Barker (bass guiltar, electric upright bass; and Martin Nolan (took over after Troy Donockley's 2009 departure during the gap between the band's last release and the new project reviewed here.
Since their last studio project, Iona released a live DVD and live album of the same material. The band members have also been active in their own projects, For example, Joanne Hogg released two solo albums entitled Raphael's Journey (2008, with Frank van Essen) and Personal (2008) following her contributions to the four album New Irish Hymns series with Maire Brennan or Kristin Getty and Margaret Fletcher. Dave Bainbridge produced the second complilation in the Songs for Luca series (reviews 1 | 2) and also co-released The Breaking of the Dawn with Nick Fletcher. Another Realm brings Iona, who are geographically separated by a significant distance, back together with all new material. The band have also launched a comprehensive new website to coincide with the album's release.
Iona's music has always been centered between the three forces of progressive rock, modern Celtic tunes and lyrical Christian themes. The fifteen tracks on Another Realm that include two very long tracks turn up the intensity on Christian themes almost throughout but also continue to demonstrate the artist's individual strengths. The band's music has become more diverse with songs that include sweeping orchestral passages, brooding Enya-esque vocal lines and very robust progressive rock arrangements. However the Iona sound is never lost. Recorded material is equally split between the two CDs in the package.
The album's first track is a short and quiet ballad entitled "As It Was." The lyrics begin to speak of Iona, and it will not be the first time in this collection. The first extended track "The Ancient Walls" blends Celtic sounds with progressive rock arrangements and an accessible melody. Listen for Clannad-style vocal harmonies. While Troy Donockley will be missed, Martin Nolan proves his strength immediately in the rousing uillean pipe instrumental breaks. Joanne sings the album's lushly arranged title track precisely. Sensitively delivered verses are followed by memorable choruses.
"Clouds" is one of the album's standout tracks. Joanne's crystalline vocals glide above building arrangements. Tremendous vocal production capture the power of her voice making it glisten, contributing alongside the instrumental arrangements, significantly to the sound delivered in the song. Listeners will adore the tempo and style variety of the progressive rock arrangements--acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums and keyboards--that accompany the stunning lyrical part.
The first two movements of the fifteen minute suite "An Atmosphere of Miracles" features brooding Celtic themes, lovely vocalise and allusions to the sounds of Enya. The final portion of the track is a lovely ballad that continues to build on the Celtic theme with tender uillean pipe melodies that interplay with Joanne's vocals. The song's final instrumental break features Dave's outstanding guitar solo. Listen for the whistle part that brings the suite to its conclusion.
The first CD of the set concludes with the standout track "Let Your Glory Fall." It is a powerful progressive rock classic Iona number largely led by Dave Bainbridge's guitar work but with equal installments of Frank van Essen's robust drums and Joanne's powerful and crystalline vocals. With a run length of almost seven and a half minutes, it is a perfect way to wrap up the first half of the project.
Frank van Essen's superb violin solo carries the majority of "Ruach," a primarily instrumental track that opens the second CD in the set. Listen for the warm orchestral washes and Joanne's vocalise contributions that drift in and out of the softly arranged track. Uillean pipes and acoustic guitar provide a stunning instrumental backdrop for the everso gentle ballad featuring Joanne's most tender vocal work "Speak to Me." The quiet backing harmonies provide the perfect amount of additional texture to the arrangement.
The most accessible "And Angels Dance" is the premier of the standouts on Another Realm. Those that listen to Iona will understand best when we say it follows on naturally from the tracks on the band's Journey Into The Morn album. The track perfectly combines rock and Celtic arrangements with Joanne's lead and backing vocal. The whistle and acoustic guitar parts shine through the arrangement and contribute to the Iona sound. The Uillean pipe solo during the instrumental break is backed by Jo's superb vocalise. This track will draw a lot of attention when performed live.
In contrast, "Foreign Soil" is sung initially a capella before Jo is joined by building arrangements of acoustic guitar, viola, piano and light self-harmonies. A whistle part echoes the melody and is joined by violin before Iona's full instrumental splendour emerges within the track. The album's incredible production is evident in the outstanding vocal and drum treatment that open the first verse of "Savior." While Another Realm is oustanding in every respect, "Savior" is likely the best produced track on album. Listen to this incredible track through headphones.
The lush progressive arrangements of "Let The Waters Flow" are led by electric guitar and Uillean pipes and provide an excellent foundation for Joanne's soaring vocal parts--lead and densely layered backing vocals--in yet another album standout. Dave Bainbridge demonstrates his musical chops in the most expressive guitar solo on the album during the instrumental break.
Shofar calls--a first for Iona--open "The Fearless Ones," a powerful yet brooding instrumental / vocalise number that opens the final chapter of Another Realm. It serves in many ways as the introduction to "White Horse," a rousing progressive Celtic standout. Joanne Hogg's powerful and crystalline vocal soars above Iona's stunning arrangements with layers of harmony that provide texture only achieved in the studio. Dave's rapidfire electric guitar solo is outstanding. An integration of numerous thematic passages, the powerful and moving eleven minute track is Another Realm's "Encircling" certain to delight the band's live audiences in forthcoming tours. And as a perfect bookend, the album concludes with "As It Shall Be," with Martin Nolan's Uillean pipes and Joanne Hogg's lovely vocal parts.
Another Realm is available from the band's online store as a two-CD set and exclusively as a digital download. The album is not available at this writing from other outlets, but since distributed by Voiceprint, it likely will be more broadly seen in the coming months. Iona are a band and group of artists that go from strength to strength. This long awaited studio project provides over an hour and a half of superb music. Wait no longer. Listen to Another Realm.