Iona - Open Sky
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Open Sky

a fusion of progressive rock and
traditional Celtic themes

the first internet

Album Review

Review and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2000
all images © Alliance Music 2000
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Last updated: 12 May 2000

Iona are recognised worldwide as an extremely accomplished progressive rock-Celtic crossover style group. Their prior studio albums—Iona, Book Of Kells, Beyond These Shores, Journey Into The Mornand an initial compilation entitled Treasures have all received critical acclaim. The band's two live albums— Heaven's Bright Sun and Woven Cord (review) are both recognised for state of the art recording quality and the latter's fusion with The All Souls Orchestra allowed the band to reach new symphonic heights. The band's concert performances are incredible (review) and should not be missed, however the live albums are the next best thing. Tour schedules are always available at the band's website.

Iona's recordings span the past decade and indeed show significant development of the band's style. Their latest 11-track studio recording, Open Sky (Alliance Music (UK) 1901772, 2000), was originally programmed to precede Woven Cord however the clammoring of fans that attended (or missed!) the band's 10th Anniversary Royal Festival Hall performance and other factors led to a switch in the production schedule. A natural but significant progression is evident in this new studio album. With an identical lineup to their latest live album, there is an increased emphasis on epic symphonic instrumentals and Joanne Hogg's vocal prowess has been made much more evident in the final mix. The album is certain to appeal to a broad audience and entrall the band's current following as well. While a US domestic release is not planned until January 2001, the European product is available from various online resources including the band's website.

Frank van Essen

Troy Donockley

Joanne Hogg

Phil Barker

Dave Bainbridge

Iona's lineup is illustrated above. Frank van Essen (drums, percussion, acoustic and electric violins, vocals) joined the band prior to the release of Woven Cord. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley (uillean pipes, low whistles, tin whistle, vocal, acoustic and e-bow guitars, bousouki, portugese mandola, harmonium), who has performed with a variety of other artists, including Maddy Prior, also released an album of his own entitled The Unseen Stream. The band's stunning lead vocalist Joanne Hogg contributed piano and keyboard to the new album, however those that have seen Iona live or have explored their other albums know she also plays acoustic guitar. Joanne is a two-time winner of The Classic Rock Society's coveted Best Female Vocalist award and she released a lovely solo album entitled Joanne in 1999 (review). Phil Barker (bass guitars) delivers another great performance on the new album and with his wife Clare have developed and maintain the band's award winning official website. Dave Bainbridge (electric, acoustic, e-bow and 'Indian' guitars, keyboards, programming, piano, bouzouki, autoharp, vocal) is the recognised driving force behind the band. Dave also released an album with former Iona member David Fitzgerald entitled The Eye Of The Eagle during the band's sabbatical year. Billy Jackson provides guest contributions on Celtic harp and clarsach. Open Sky's tracks are written by various combinations of the band members.

Iona's new album opens with the studio version of their epic instrumental "Woven Cord" which originally appeared on their prior album of the same name. Despite the absence of the orchestra in the studio recording, the symphonic effect is not lost. Troy Donockley's traditional instrumentation carries the melodies for much of the tune. Violin parts appear to be much more prevalent on Open Sky than on Iona's former studio albums and while notable within the vocal numbers, perhaps the most stunning part is the main theme of the all new track "A Million Stars."

Joanne Hogg's vocal numbers on Open Sky impress from two distinct perspectives. The range and sheer energy within her voice has continued to grow and excellent results were achieved in the recording, mixing and mastering done by Nigel Palmer, Dave Bainbridge and Denis Blackham. "Wave after Wave" is an emotionally moving song mixing traditional and contemporary instrumentation with Joanne's sensitive yet powerful and soaring vocal lead. We especially enjoyed the building energy through the song's running time and the calling whistle part echoing the vocal melody within the instrumental bridge. The title track is a highly accessible Iona-style track mixing several musical themes together in a progressive fashion. The main melody is carried by Jo's vocal while contemporary instrumentals build as the song develops.

Iona's music is often recognised by calling whistle parts. The 9+ minute "Castlerigg" opens with a whistle melody that blends into a modern interpretation of a uillean pipe jig underscored with atmospheric and orchestral instrumentation before a sweet vocal part within the song is performed with string and acoustic guitar backing. Like many of Iona's epics, a dynamic instrumental, blending contemporary with traditional, develops as the song moves towards completion.

"Light Reflected" is a lovely ballad-like song backed by piano and orchestral style instrumentation. Soaring crystalline vocals dominate the track most effectively. Dreamy atmospheric instrumentation and additional vocal layers add to the sensitive texture of the song before a powerful instrumental develops in its conclusion. A Celtic harp joins other strings, piano and Joanne's sensitive and up front vocal lead in "Hinba." A lovely uillean pipe part echoes the vocal melody during the instrumental bridge. "Friendship's Door," which concludes the album, is a ballad featuring Jo's absolutely stunning lead vocal. The first half of the song is essentially all vocal with only the lightest supporting dreamy instrumentation. However, as one would expect from Iona, instrumentals build substantially and a uillean pipe part builds to significant proportions. Atmospheric allusions to the album's other tracks drift in and out as the song concludes.

The three-part "Songs Of Ascent" epic spans almost 22 minutes making it the longest complete work recorded in the band's history. It is full of relaxing atmosphere with dreamy and moody passages supporting the secular theme of the lyrics sung mainly in the first part. Characteristic calling whistle melodies and contemporised traditional instrumentals perfectly compliment Joanne's powerful lead vocal part, reminscent of "Encircling." From the liner notes, "the concluding section of this piece is based on the traditional Gaelic melody 'Gentle Dark-Eyed Mary.'" The interplay of Celtic harp, piano and acoustic guitar in the second part of the song is highly notable. Further instrumentals build and effectively pass the melody around varying power and altering the mood accordingly. Vocals in the third part are subdued but achieve the calling effect of whistle parts elsewhere in Iona's repertoire. An instrumental crescendo driven by uillean pipes develops as the song builds to its conclusion and with dynamic bass and guitar parts is an Iona hallmark delivered here with great effect.

Iona's latest studio release is a tremendous testament to a talented group of five musicians, completely illutrating their virtuosity. With epic-length instrumentals building to crushing proportions and sensitive vocal numbers spanning the recording, the album is certain to please progressive, Celtic and new age music enthusiasts. Worthy of a cross-country or trans-Atlantic journey, this album is in every respect a must listen!

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