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Image © 1998 Alliance Music

Album Review

© Russell W Elliot 1999

Last Updated: 27 November 1999

Iona have released four tremendous studio albums—Iona, Book Of Kells, Beyond These Shores, Journey Into The Mornan initial compilation entitled Treasures and the technically superb and the stunning live double CD set entitled Heaven's Bright Sun. Their recordings span a period of just short of a decade, show significant development of the band's style and have received international acclaim across progressive, Celtic and secular audiences. Their tremendously powerful live performances are consistently sold out (review).

With their orchestral sound and playing in what some would call progressive rock Celtic crossover style, the band's most recent release Woven Cord recorded at a long-planned 10th anniversary live performance at the Royal Festival Hall (London) with The All Souls Orchestra on May 28th, 1999. The recording certainly takes their music to new heights. Stunning in every respect, this 11-track album is a tribute to a very successful collaboration and one that begins a new era for Iona.

From the liner notes, "Woven Cord marks Iona's return to live performances after their sabbatical year with their current lineup of Joanne Hogg, Dave Bainbridge, Troy Donockley, Phil Barker and Frank Van Essen. The initial idea for the collaboration came from the orchestra's conducter Noel Tredinnick back in 1997 - a suggestion that immediately sparked the band's imagination. The prospect of expanding the band's sound palette to include orchestral instrumentation seemed a logical one, bearing in mind the already complex texturary nature of Iona's music. However, also aware of the possible pitfalls of such a pairing and keen to create something new, Dave, Troy, and Frank have been careful in their arrangements to retain the essential atmosphere of Iona's sound, whilst giving scope for the orchestra to enhance and extend the music into previosly unexplored territories."

"Although this is a disc of Iona's compositions, it is first and foremost a record of two unique groups of musicians from disparate backgrounds, coming together for the first time, united by the common cords of music and faith."

With a studio album in the works and planned for release this autumn, the significant demand for a recording to commemorate their sell-out tenth anniversary live performance reversed the release plans for the albums and Woven Cord jumped ahead in the sequence. The new studio album will be completed in the last quarter of this year and released by the band in early 2000.

Aside from the "Overture" and the album's title track, "Woven Cord," each of the remaining nine songs have appeared in studio or live form before. The orchestral arrangements by Dave Bainbridge, Troy Donockley and Fran Van Essen, across the album are all brand new and add significant depth to the individual pieces. Joanne Hogg's stunning vocals reach new heights and it is easy to see why she regularly wins the Classic Rock Society's coveted best female vocalist award. Joanne's acclaimed solo album, released earlier this year further underscores the Classic Rock Soceity's views! (review)

Arranged by Troy Donockley, the lovely classical style orchestral instrumental "Overture" opens the album with light and increasingly powerful strings and woodwinds sets the mood for the music that is to follow. As the "Overture" comes to an end, Jo introduces the vocal experience with a new arrangement by Dave Bainbridge of "Bi Sé Mo Shuil (Pt 1)." The vocal recording of this live album is absolutely incredible with technically superb recording quality and absolutely stunning performances by Jo Hogg throughout. The recording has been very carefully crafted in the final mix with vocals and key instrumentals perfectly imaged to carry their contribution to the overall sound. The final mix is—simply stated—perfect.

Iona's sheer instrumental power as well as their lush band and orchestral arrangements are clearly evident in epic version "Man" originally recorded on the Book Of Kells album, long known for powerful percussion, soaring guitar work and overall power. Powerful instrumental excursions are even further illustrated in the wonderful new arrangement of the epic "Encircling," a track fans have voted their all time favourite. The new orchestral parts make this version by far the most dynamic and best recording of this progressive masterpiece currently available. Joanne's vocals return after the lengthy instrumental in the middle of the song, and as on prior albums, they are extremely powerful and inspirationally moving.

"White Sands," a soft instrumental originally from the self-titled debut album has been richly yet carefully orchestrated in the version featured here while not compromising the individual elements contributed by the band members. Glimmering vocals within "Murlough Bay" are supported by a powerful new orchestral arrangement in the chorus. "Dancing On The Wall" has been treated to a delightful mainly acoustic introduction, yet the arrangement builds to full ocrchestral and instrumental power—certainly one that will please many of Iona's old and new fans alike.

"Lindesfarne" and "Revelation" continue to carry the themes set by the songs before them further illustrating the success of the band's collaboration with the full orchestra. The environmentally sounding introduction (it has always sounded to me like birds singing) to "Lindesfarne" with full orchestra is absolutely superb. Jo's vocals are mixed right up with perfect clarity never overshadowed by the instrumentals. Equally important, the instrmentals contribute significantly to the overall sound and are also technically perfect. The whistle part within "Revelation" and the clarity of Jo's soaring vocals are extremely memorable. Both songs build to full power illustrating the overall strength of both the band and orchestra.

The new instrumental track, "Woven Cord" is orchestrally very rich, and gives each of the contributing artists a chance in the spotlight. Similar in some ways during its introduction to "Lindesfarne," it features a lush arrangement of traditional sounds like those heard on Book Of Kells. Troy Donockley's contributions are evident in much of the traditional instrumentation. A powerful lead guitar part in the middle of the song serves as a testament to Dave Bainbridge's talent.

"Beyond These Shores," the title track from the band's third record is the closing track of this album. With its lovely violin parts, the stunning and moving vocal performance by Joanne Hogg and additional orchestral arrangements written by Dave Bainbridge, this is certainly a spectacular version of yet another Iona favourite.

Clearly the best recording by Iona released to date, with stunning almost studio quality, professional performance and its full orchestra sound, this album will please many long time Iona fans as it did the fortunate audience that witnessed the performance at the Royal Festival Hall when this album was recorded. Newcomers to Iona's music can certainly begin their experience with this album but must anticipate that acquiring their other recordings is inevitable once this new material is fully appreciated. Worthy of a cross-country journey, this album is clearly a must listen!RWE

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