(All Album Reviews by Oreb)
Iona are an interesting, at times frustrating band. On one hand they are capable of some of the best folk-prog around: ethereal but hard centred stuff like the tone poems on The Book of Kells and the superb Heaven’s Bright Sun. On the other they can also come up with AOR-sounding songs like “Treasure” which is good for a sing-along but which sounds to me too calculated to really work. All their albums are worth investigating, but to my ears none are totally successful (although their latest, Open Sky, comes very close). I have no such reservations about this solo album by their guitarist Dave Bainbridge. This is a totally satisfying piece of work and one which I like more every time I play it. To my ears this is the most successful album of this type since Mike Oldfield’s masterpiece Ommadawn.
It’s difficult to explain the impact of this album without falling into clichés. The guitar and keyboard work (by Dave) is outstanding throughout and the compositions are uncanny in the way they manage to blend folk and prog while consistently avoiding new age sounds. Listen to the title track: the delicacy of the arrangements, the quality of the playing and – most importantly – the way towards the end that the music simply lies down behind ebbing voices. Stunning. Or the contrasting parts of “The Everlasting Hills”: prayer, guitar rave-up, acoustic meditation and rhapsodic piano before returning to a superb ensemble finish.
Or “Star-Filled Skies” during which what sounds like a traditional folk dance suddenly develops swing and launches into guitar lead which never settles down. Or the end of that piece when an already ecstatic celebration is simply ignited by the emergence of vocals by Chris Hale which have a distinct – and remarkably appropriate Qawwali flavour. Are you there yet?
Vocals on the whole are limited to gaelic prayers, wordless accompaniment (or Urdu in the case of Mr Hale). One song – “Until the Tide Turns” – is more direct. It features Joanne Hogg, whose pure voice – at times on some Iona pieces almost too pure for my taste – is perfect for this simple, heartfelt piece. Joanne is joined at other points in the album by Mae McKenna and Rachel Jones from the now sadly defunct Karnataka. Rachel at one point whispers a prayer over Mae’s sung version. It’s a remarkable moment because it manages to be at once spiritual and sensual. Like much of this great record.