Reviewed by Pippa Rimmer
After a break of nearly three years, Iona return with their unmistakable sound, mixing mystic Celtic haziness with solid slabs of rock The line up may have changed but the sound is still classic Iona. Under the creative direction of Dave Bainbridge, the band " seem to climb even higher and reach stunning heights with the familiar Iona sounds but this time, with the added talents of new drummer/violinist Frank Van Essen and bassist Phil Barker. The opening track "Woven Cord", an epic instrumental lasting nine minutes 25 seconds, is a musical explosion of sounds which are both lilting and rousing at the same time. Van Essen's crescendo drumming sets the pace in a tapestry of rhythms while Troy Donockleys pipes sit moodily on top. Dave Bainbridge's sensitive guitar flits in between the pipes and drums, adding a sharper dimension to the proceedings. Track two, "Wave After Wave", cuts to Van Essen's mellow violin overture, giving way to Joanne Hogg's now legendary voice. Bainbridge surprises us on the title track "Open Sky", managing to blend an unexpected Indian guitar with Celtic rhythms and sounds and Joanne's melodic voice - all of which work in beautiful harmony together. The instrumental pastiche, "Castlerigg", starts with the haunting tones of pipes and builds up to include drums, stacking layer upon layer of rhythm and sound when suddenly, all we are left with Van Essen's trembling violin and Joanne's breathy vocals, before pipes and drums kick in again and lead us into a lively Celtic reel. New boy Van Essen is a rare breed of drummer who can also play violin with the sensitivity of a virtuoso and his skills are showcased on the beautiful "A Million Stars", which is co-written with Bainbridge, Elsewhere, the "Songs Of Ascent" trilogy begins with a swirling instrumental, pipes and violin which take an upbeat turn when drums and Joanne's vocals take the lead. Part two of the trilogy begins with the gentle "raindrop" sound of a Celtic harp, courtesy of the hands of Billy Jackson, which opens up to more deft Bainbridge guitar before fading. This is a haunting, floaty Celtic melody with just a hint of pipes and percussion but is restful enough to take you to the remotest Scottish island where our Christian predecessors first established the faith. It segues into Joanne's voice (a refrain of "Songs Of Ascent" Part 1). The concluding third of the trilogy is based on the traditional Gaelic melody "Gentle-Eyed Mary" and is a Bainbridge/Donockley collaboration with barely-there vocals by Joanne. The sumptuous feast is rounded off with the sweetness of "Friendship's Door", a heady mix of pipes, guitar and percussion, all topped off by Joanne's rich voice. This is a delightful album, full of space, mellowness, energy and creativity. The talents of newcomers Van Essen and Barker add an extra sound dimension and quality which established Iona fans will love and which will make new fans of others. Under the sensitive production of Dave Bainbridge, yet again Iona deliver a platinum album which will not disappoint - well-crafted songs, intrinsic musical detail and inspired musicianship. What more could you want? If you buy nothing else for the rest of the year, spend your last £15 on this piece of craftmanship. You'd be lost without it.
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