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Iona - 2007 - "The Circling Hour"

(65:00, 'Open Sky')

TRACK LIST:                             

1.  Empyrean Dawn 7:49
2.  Children of Time 5:33
3.  Strength 5:59
4.  Wind Off the Lake 11:02
5.  Factory of Magnificent Souls 5:02
6.  Sky Maps 6:39
7.  No Fear In Love 5:59
8.  Wind, Water & Fire-I (Wind) 3:30
9.  Wind, Water & Fire-II (Water) 5:00 
10. Wind, Water & Fire-III (Fire) 7:14
11. Fragment of a Fiery Sun 2:45


Dave Bainbridge - guitars, bouzouki, mandolin; keyboards; vocals
Troy Donockley - Uillean pipes, whistles; guitars, bouzouki; vocals
Joanne Hogg - lead vocals; keyboard
Frank Van Essen - drums; violins
Phil Baker - bass

Prolusion. IONA, from the UK, have been together since 1989. "The Circling Hour" is their sixth studio album, coming as it does after a hiatus of several years. The band take their name from a small island off the coast of Scotland; an island which played a pivotal role in Celtic Christianity's influence in Britain during the middle ages.

Analysis. It was with great anticipation that I gave this album its first spin and to my pleasure, Joanne's sweet voice was the first sound to come softly from the speakers. These first notes, backed by the low hum of strings are like a quiet sunrise. Empyrean Dawn bursts into full bloom without warning - an eruption of sound loosed from the band, with a prolonged cadenza like chord, everyone improvising helter-skelter in a rush of energy. Empyrean means "the highest heaven, in ancient belief usually thought to be a realm of pure fire or light" (according to Much as I hate to say it, I found the album to be mostly downhill from here, not that there is anything wrong with the playing, as all members of Iona have always been without question top notch (Frank van Essen's drumming is especially good on this CD), but the album just falls short of expectations on other accounts. Still present are the Celtic flavors that have always been an integral part of their sound. The main problem is in the compositions themselves and I wonder if the best wound up on Bainbridge's masterpiece solo work, "Veil of Gossamer", released in 2004. It is a danger for a band with a history of producing such high quality music for years to continue to live up to such a self-imposed standard. Gone here is the varied pacing that one comes to expect from Iona (or Bainbridge or Donockley solo) recordings. "The Circling Hour" is a good name for an album that seems to go round in circles and becomes simply tedious. I will not go into a detailed critique of each piece, but suffice it to say that where most Iona works leave me wanting for more, the songs of "The Circling Hour" found me wondering "are we there, yet?" Factory of Magnificent Souls is one of the exceptions, a light rocker that tells of the prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela and others where incarcerated, employing the poetry of Steve Stockman for lyrics. Sky Maps begins and hope is sparked that the old Iona I've come to love is still alive and kicking, but then the vocals enter and it all becomes rather repetitive. How many times must Joanne sing "north to south" and "from within and without"? (Which brings up the other major shortcoming of the album, lyrical content. On earlier releases the band's lyrics had a depth and richness, particularly in expressing spiritual themes, which are generally lacking here. Once profound, they seem to have much less to say now, but are striving to sound profound.) Lyrically, the most interesting writing is contained Strength and Factory of Magnificent Souls. Musically, in the 'plus column', Sky Maps uses another Iona signature sound, the dual leads of Troy's Uillean pipes and Dave's electric guitar, as many bands might use dual guitar leads. It is still very effective. The song ends with acoustic guitar and low whistle, again a hint of what could still be. Wind, Water & Fire (divided into three parts) is the prog highlight on the album. It is the sort of ambient prog in which the band has proven themselves so adept. Wind is a serene violin duet by Frank. Water features wordless vocals by Joanne. Fire, as might be expected is the highest energy composition of the three, showcasing Dave & Troy, sounding very much like something from "Veil of Gossamer". Fragment of a Fiery Sun is a bookend, reflection of the opening and closes nicely, much more succinctly and apropos of the composition.

Conclusion. Listening to "The Circling Hour" is like watching the sequel of a movie you loved, which retains the characters from the original, but lacks the same depth or originality of script. The exercise becomes simply academic and rather tedious. Although all the elements are here in terms of instrumentation, CH lacks the spark of passion both lyrically and compositionally of Iona's earlier works. Compared with "Veil of Gossamer", the solo release by Dave Bainbridge, "The Circling Hour" pales by comparison. If not for doing this review, I would not choose to spend my time listening to the entire album. Being familiar with their entire catalog, it is impossible to rate this in the same category as earlier works, which I recommend most enthusiastically and without reservation, but I cannot recommend spending your hard earned money here. Instead, buy their earlier works to get a much better Iona experience. I especially recommend the "Live in London" DVD, "Heaven's Bright Sun" (live concert on 2 CDs), or "The River Flows Anthology" (which includes 4 disks - the first 3 studio releases and 1 disk of material available only through the anthology) and get a satisfying taste of the genius they displayed in their earlier works.

KW: Agst 16, 2007

Iona - 2007 - "The Circling Hour"


Analysis. "The Circling Hour" is only my second encounter with IONA, so I only can compare this album to their "Live in London" DVD, though I've also heard Dave Bainbridge's solo CD, "Veil of Gossamer", which, minus Phil Baker, features all of his bandmates and has quite a lot in common with Iona in style. While still enjoying the originality of their music, I find their new recording to be somewhat less interesting than either of those, one of the disc's eleven tracks, No Fear In Love, reminding me to a certain degree of Don't Give Up from Peter Gabriel's "So" (sung by Peter and Kate Bush in duet), just without Gabriel's vocals. There are two more facile songs to be found here, namely Children of Time and Factory of Magnificent Souls, both being folk-tinged too, though only the latter is heavily repetitive. I am truly delighted with Joan Hogg's singing, as ever, but my nature rebels against the schematic verse-chorus approach used on that tune. It is only the battery commander Frank Van Essen who diversifies the picture, making each of the said numbers sound somewhat more potent than an ordinary pop tune. At once powerful and highly resourceful, Frank's playing suggests the idea to me that he feels cramped within the framework of most of the tracks present, his drum work coming across as one (at times the only one) of the main progressive forces almost everywhere on the CD. Furthermore, being so to speak pluralistically a violin player, Frank also solidly contributes to the chamber division of the album's overall sonic palette, his violin playing a key role throughout each of the two instrumental cuts Wind and Water (although both feature vocalizations), as well as on most of the concluding piece, Fragment of a Fiery Sun. Each of these three has a semi-ambient semi-chamber feeling, no matter that the second additionally stands out for its powerful drumming. The rest of the material depicts Iona much more favorably. It came as no surprise to me that the longer tracks, Strength, Empyrean Dawn, Sky Maps, Fire and Wind Off the Lake, are all noticeably more diverse than the others. The first of these unexpectedly reveals a quite heavy sound, while the other four are all relatively rich in the Gaelic music-inspired interplays between Dave and Troy, which have always been one of the most essential components of Iona's trademark sound. Nonetheless it is the largely instrumental 11-minute Wind Off the Lake that is progressively most saturated and is the only track here keeping the advanced listener's attention throughout, although Fire is only slightly inferior to that epic.

Conclusion. With regard to the general state of contemporary Progressive, "The Circling Hour" is overall a good album, its makers still sounding unlike anyone else, which should also be taken into consideration. In comparison with Iona's earlier material however, it would be a step backwards. But if you enjoy proto-progressive Folk Rock be sure to check this CD out. Those looking for a more adventurous sound within the said style will not miss if they choose "Masque" or "Hidden Agenda" by The Morrigan, the other contemporary female-fronted UK outfit.

VM: Agst 16, 2006

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