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Iona - Open Sky CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.09 | 94 ratings

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5 stars Transcendent: 1. Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception. 2. Being above and independent of the material universe. Used of the Deity. 3. Iona's "Open Sky" album. Okay, so I added that third definition on my own. I couldn't help myself. It's the most descriptive word I can use for this glorious CD. As I have written in other reviews of their works, this group creates music that is different in many, many ways from other forms of progressive music and requires the listener to slow his/her pace down a notch or two as to allow one's spirit to escape the fetters of gravity for a while. It may be just the antidote needed when the troubles of the world press in on your soul and rob you of hope.

I find that a fair review of this album necessitates delving into the realm of creative imagery, so bear with me, if you will (and be prepared for a plethora of adjectives). As the powerful "Woven Cord" begins imagine that your soul is in the cockpit of a space shuttle, looking upward from the launching pad. An early-morning fog slowly dissipates and you are cleared for liftoff. Roiling drums and piercing Uilleann Pipes erupt as the engines ignite and you jet upwards into open sky. The torrid velocity is exhilarating as you climb away from the earth, then a leveling off period ensues and you finally get a chance to take in the vista of being miles above the planet, accentuated here by Dave Bainbridge's blazing electric guitar ride. But then the second-stage booster kicks in and you ascend once again to the sound of Troy Donockley's pipes until you've achieved a lofty orbit. It took a lot of thrust to get there but it's been a fabulous ride so far. However, you soon realize that there's no shuttle at all. You are free to explore space without hindrance.

A violin and a combination of acoustics and various guitar-like instruments (They employ e-bows, bouzoukis, Indian guitars, autoharps and Portuguese mandolas at one time or another so take your pick) usher in the gorgeous "Wave After Wave" as Joanne Hogg's angelic voice dances deftly over deep keyboard-generated strings. "Wave after wave rolls in/and the line is gone/where my feet have been" she sings. Drummer Frank Van Essen and bassist Phil Barber provide a powerful rhythm track underneath and the song has a stirring, "traveling" bridge. The tune reaches a peak and they wisely allow the momentum to resonate in its sheer power for a few bars before dropping down to let Joanne sing the last stanza alone. While floating in the sublime aftermath of that song "Open Sky" begins and this lovely ballad gently pulls you even farther away from the world. Hogg's soft vocal is surrounded by pristine instrumentation as she reminds you that your unique personality is "the gift of life/the essence that can never die." These two songs are so exquisite that, for a moment or two, you may think you've landed on a sublime plateau of pure love. I can only pray my words do them justice.

"Castlerigg" opens with a lone Irish whistle whispering out from a cavern of sound, then a wall of Uilleann Pipes scorch the air and I can visualize an army of kilt-clad soldiers marching boldly across a wide meadow on their way to battle some terrible injustice. It's a wonderful assault on the senses that eventually descends to just violin, acoustic guitar and Joanne delivering a short verse before the whole thing launches back into the furious procession, this time riding a strong rock beat that drives the number hard to the end. The instrumental "A Million Stars" follows and here Van Essen's sweet violin sets a hypnotic and serene mood atop Bainbridge's lush keyboards. It's 3 minutes, 19 seconds of bliss. A slow, mesmerizing groove travels beneath Hogg's voice on "Light Reflected" wherein she sings "Light of light eternal/light my way for me." It's one of the most comforting tunes I've ever heard. The aura the band develops on this cut wraps around the listener like a warm coat on a cold winter's day, then drifts away peacefully.

Next is a pretty song written by Joanne called "Hinba" in which the pipes and violin intertwine and compliment her crystal-clear tones, setting you up for the three parts of "Songs of Ascent" that are truly out of this world. Beginning with what I can only describe as celestial cascades of distant orchestral strains swirling in the ether, this must be what heaven sounds like. Fluid whistle melodies arrive, preceding Hogg's delivery of poetic lines like "here in the purest light of the heavens/mysteries revealing/in songs that surround me/an emptiness for You to fill/my soul a cavern for Your sea" as the music gradually intensifies around her. The second movement features guest Billy Jackson on Celtic harp as he joins into a symphony that is constantly changing/evolving into a fantastically dense atmosphere, then comes to dissolve into mere whispers. Soon a wall of music emerges to overtake you and eventually a supernal melody descends on your spirit, soothing like a mother's caress before building to a satisfying crescendo. In part three Joanne's voice bounces wordlessly in and out of a scattering of notes, then becomes part of a kaleidoscope of colors as a beat pattern gathers momentum below it all before eventually bursting out with Troy's pipes warbling spectacularly. All I can say about these 21 minutes of paradise is "Hallelujah."

How they can follow up such an achievement is beyond my comprehension but they do just that on "Friendship's Door." Hogg's disembodied vocal hovers over droning keyboards like a magical apparition. Never a group to get in a hurry, they allow their splendid creation to breathe and exist on its own plane without needless embellishment. When Donockley's pipes come in playing the melody it's so elegant and resplendent that it nearly breaks my heart. The track ends with an intriguing collage of disjointed musical excerpts that are quite dream-like as they fade into space. It's almost as if your soul is walking the bridge across forever and it's looking back for one last glimpse of earth. As Joanne states in the chorus, "these are some of the things/that take my breath away." Amen.

I didn't believe Iona could ever top their immaculate "Book of Kells" album but I was wrong. This is as good, if not better. But that's like comparing diamonds. I sincerely hope there are other proggers out there who can and will enjoy indulging their spiritual senses and bathing their minds in the superb goodness of "Open Sky" as much as I do.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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