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Iona - The Circling Hour CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

3.74 | 53 ratings

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3 stars Being a reviewer for this website is not only something that I enjoy immensely but it is also a privilege I take rather seriously and spend a lot of time thinking about. Like most proggers, from time to time I come across an album by one of my favorite artists/groups that I don't find to be as appealing to my sensibilities as most of their others but still maintains the high standards of musicianship, arranging and production that they're known for. This creates a real conundrum for me because, while it doesn't dazzle me, I must acknowledge that it might attract a listener to the band specifically because it DOESN'T emphasize the side of their sound that I adore. In other words, I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from checking the incredible Iona out just because I'm not completely knocked out by "The Circling Hour."

What I crave about this group isn't simply their inspired propensity to manifest the ethereal but their total, unflinching embracing of it as they did on the sublime "The Book of Kells" and, to a large extent, on the exquisite "Beyond These Shores." But groups naturally evolve in one way or another and perhaps, after a lengthy six year hiatus from the studio, they reunited with a been-there-done-that attitude regarding their former creations and wanted to explore something more dynamic and assertive. That's fine. However, I reserve the right not to like it as much. It comes down to a question of personal taste.

A mellower-voiced Joanne Hogg starts "Empyrean Dawn" off in a disarming way before a shake-the- walls explosion of sound detonates and shocks the listener with a huge cathedral organ roaring underneath various instruments and voices dipping in and out of the fracas. Things settle down considerably for the smooth verses but then a more forceful, rocking rhythm track than I'm used to hearing from this band takes over and the whole thing becomes quite aggressive as it drapes around a thrilling melody line. It's a drastic departure from their usual approach and that bold spirit continues into "Children of Time" as drummer Frank Van Essen lays down a strong, overly loud beat that reminds me of Phil Collins' angry "I Don't Care Anymore" rumbling on his second solo album. It's a bit much but the music retains an almost festive flair between the verses that is refreshing. Overall it's a decent song but not remarkable. "Strength" transitions away from an initial warm, flowing feel into a subdued yet near-metallic guitar/bass riff that seems forced. Again, this harder sound might draw in prog lovers who find Iona's earlier CDs to be too quiet (some say boring) so I don't want to be too critical here. It's worth mentioning that the tune gradually builds up to a spacious ending that's impressive.

By this point in the proceedings I've become more acclimated to their new, wilder temperament and can better appreciate the best cut here, the stirring (mostly instrumental) epic "Wind Off the Lake." The intro features the deep, mysterious shrouded-in-fog effect that these guys do so well before Troy Donockley's Uilleann Pipes and Frank's violin usher in a traditional and very familiar Irish bagpipe air and the whole song soars into the heavens. This track rocks! It ambitiously travels through different movements that include chorales and electric guitar runs (Dave Bainbridge can shred with the best of 'em!), creating excitement every step of the way. It exits through the same door it came in with Joanne scatting wordlessly from out of a dark, hovering mist. It's an excellent piece of music. Unfortunately what follows is the nadir of the album for me, the jagged "Factory of Magnificent Souls." The song just never seems to find its groove as it jostles over a choppy rhythm track from beginning to end.

"Sky Maps" is another generally instrumental number that puts even more distance between them and their more pastoral past as they rush headlong down the rock & roll highway. Dave and Troy's electric guitar work is exceptional but the repeating phrase of "notice how." from Hogg seems like an unnecessary afterthought. The tune drops into a light verse for a while, then returns to the busy melody before collapsing into a peaceful coda where acoustic guitar and a low whistle reign. Another highlight arrives with "No Fear in Love" that has a spacey introduction showcasing Iona's trademark dense depth of field from the earlier albums I mentioned. Joanne's angelic voice literally floats over the music as she sings "love is beyond the mind/love is beyond its reasoning/love is the path that leads to paradise." I wish there was more of this.

The three-part "Wind, Water and Fire" suite is next and for me it's a courageous but ultimately uneven undertaking for the band. "Wind," with its delicate violins and keyboards weaving in and out of each other, establishes a restful and serene atmosphere that segues seamlessly into "Water" where Hogg once again scats over lush tonal terrain before a light beat pattern appears, then dissolves. "Fire" follows and it is true to its title in that its up-tempo electric guitar melody becomes furious at times as it blazes away. It diverts into a more dramatic segment where Bainbridge shines even brighter on his guitar and a massive finale ensues. While the whole thing falls short of spectacular for me I have to give them props for bravely venturing into the symphonic prog area where giants rule. "Fragment of a Fiery Sun" is a reprise of the album's first brief notes but here they take time to further explore and develop the song's beauty and it pays dividends as it makes for an elegant finale.

"The Circling Hour" is a fine album. Not essential but most assuredly good and I expect it will charm those who prefer a harder edge to their progressive music in general because these musicians are not lightweights in any sense of the word. I truly wish I enjoyed this CD more but I must be true to myself and tell it like I hear it. This one gets a three-star rating because it just doesn't move me emotionally and spiritually on the same level as their work in the 90s does. I have a strong feeling that many of you will feel differently and consider this to be a step up from those recordings. To each his own. 3.4 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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