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Iona: The Circling Hour

Although I am familiar with Iona, I haven't heard any of their previous albums in their entirety. I do recall that they differ slightly from their The Circling Hour in that more emphasis was given on long, ambiant passages on their earlier material, such as Open Sky and the much revered Journey into the Morn while their new release is unafraid to delve into uncharted territory, lending itself to both energetic pieces and the more trademark sounds of their former work.

The Circling Hour sees the band return with a somewhat more joyous energy, churning out rhythmically dynamic cuts focusing on the incredibly beautiful vocals of Joanne Hogg. Her silky smooth tone, plaintive delivery, and unmatched melodic power make for a unique combination, and it is only understandable why songs like "Strength" and "No Fear in Love" must have been written specifically with her voice in mind. Hogg shines like the brightest star in the sky on "Strength", a song featuring gently strummed acoustic guitars, a nice shaker sound in the intro, and fat rhythms at the end. Likewise, "No Fear in Love" sees Hogg taking centre stage once again while little sections of acoustic guitars, distant percussion work, a nice mandolin melody, and elegiac blues guitar wrap her sweet tone up.

That is not to say, however, this album lacks the band's core stylistic elements. On the contrary, the first two songs "Empyrean Dawn" and "Children of Time" represent everything Iona stands for. Wonderful choir voices, a myriad of instruments (check the darabukkas on the second piece), low and high whistles, pipes, and their unmistakable Celtic element permeat these tracks, venturing into bass-heavy soundscapes where Hogg delivers the lyrics adapted from T.W. Rolleston's 1913 poem "The Song of Maelduin", from which the title of the album was also inspired.

Guitarists Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley excel in their performances, throwing in everything from Floydian guitar runs to folky motifs and trance-inducing e-bow addition. On "Wind Off the Lake", at over eleven minutes (and mostly instrumental), they are at their most psychedelic phase, borrowing tons of Celtic influences, blazing Hammond organs, and ethereal wind chimes in order to climax the song with a dramatic finale. "Sky Maps" only serves to thicken this experiment: it is hauntingly beautiful with lucid layers of keyboards, mood-intensive piano arrangements, and the mandatory inclusion of flute. The lead guitar work here is unbelievable.

The "Wind, Water & Fire" trilogy is divided into three tracks, titled "Wind", "Water" and "Fire", and finds the band revisiting their older days creating impossible threads of atmosphere, the first one being entirely instrumental, the second one featuring wordless vocal melodies from Hogg (God - that voice is amazing!), and the last one simply being the heavy finish as guitars, bass, and drums are all woven into the mix. Speaking of which, drummer Frank Van Essen had me drool the first ten or fifteen times I spinned this album. I can't believe I missed out on this guy all these years. Although Iona's music is mostly soothing and relaxing, and therefore not all that suitable for a drummer to showcase his skills, this man proves you can still insert all these subtle cymbal and snare rhythms without driving the song away from its melodic focus.

Though far from being similar, I still recommend Iona to fans of Mostly Autumn, White Willow, Dead Can Dance, Blackmore's Night, and even NIL. All of these bands are equally astonishing and deserve to be heard.

Track Listing

  1. Empyrean Dawn
  2. Children of Time
  3. Strength
  4. Wind Off the Lake
  5. Factory of Magnificent Souls
  6. Skymaps
  7. No Fear in Love
  8. Wind, Water & Fire - Wind
  9. Wind, Water & Fire - Water
  10. Wind, Water & Fire - Fire
  11. Fragment of a Fiery Sun

Added: March 5th 2007
Reviewer: Murat Batmaz
Related Link: Iona website
Hits: 3291
Language: english

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