Iona – Open Sky

In the Christian tradition, Lucifer is sometimes believed to be the former music ministry leader in heaven, based off Ezekiel 28:13b-14. Such a belief implies an affirmation of the ongoing creation of music in the afterlife, to the delight of anyone working for or reading this magazine. The claims of visitors there, such as Don Piper in his popular novel 90 Minutes in Heaven, are that music is an integral component of life happily ever after and, contrary to the unfortunate stereotype, does not constitute of angels giving their harps to the goody-two-shoes humans to play on fluffy clouds for eternity. Critics of all religious stripes seek to discover music made in heaven, and Iona are the best band in Celtic progressive rock and are offering up Open Sky as one of the most compelling previews. Open Sky feels like a musical ascension to heaven, not just in its sterling timeless quality but in the celestial atmosphere it consistently and vividly evokes, and it has everything I could want in musical heaven.

Since their 1989 formation, Iona have traveled this long road to heaven as their sound has evolved and matured from a jazzy brand of mildly progressive pop and rock music imbued with their Celtic heritage, represented both musically in choices of exotic instrumentation such as uilleann pipes and flutes, and lyrically in tales of ancient Celtic history and the Celtic Christian spirituality. The title Open Sky suggests a conceptual theme of heaven opening up to the earth, vividly painted by the music and atmosphere and explored liberally in the gorgeous lyrical poetry. Lyrical themes include aspects of interaction between heaven and earth, including prayer, visions, contemplation, and mysticism, and how the invisible reality can be manifested in the visible everyday world, through nature, beauty, and kinship. Iona’s devotional qualities have developed over the years and came to full maturity on the profound Celtic Christian mysticism of Journey Into the Morn. However, the heavenward thematic direction of Open Sky spearheads a fresh musical direction by discovering newfound ambitions towards the epic and energetic, and immediately perfects the balance between the meditative, epic, and energetic.

At the album’s very beginning, washes of ethereal synthesizers form rising and falling waves of volume, choirs living and breathing and almost physically drawing spirits in the air, manipulating the sound as if these spirits are moving and surrounding the listener, and sometimes even mimicking syllables and words uttered on the lips of angels whispering into our ears. But this time around, as the piece develops further, a sense of impending release, an upcoming Big Bang, is foreshadowed by a twinkling synth theme gradually burgeoning in volume and an Allan Holdsworth style single-note volume swell on the electric guitar, both of which eventually envelop the entire sonic space and are smashed aside by drummer Frank van Essen’s primordial percussive battery. He crashes multiple cymbals and hammers multiple snares and percussions all at once, in rhythms that allege he has four arms, to transform the piece into a nine-minute instrumental tribal surge entitled Woven Cord. van Essen’s more rock-oriented style, closer to Phil Collins than the jazzy minimalism of Bill Bruford employed by his predecessor Terl Bryant, supplies a newfound punch that results in Iona’s heaviest recording to date and tightens the overall band dynamic. Despite the resultant more uniform compositional style, discarding jazz entirely and most of the Clannad style jubilant pop in favor of pure-blooded prog rock, the entire band seems to have been let loose, technically and compositionally. Aptly, electric leads are seamlessly woven into a cord with uilleann pipes in the same melodic theme running throughout most of the piece, and this primal momentum continues at a blistering pace for three minutes, only broken by a brief pipe interlude as divine creative power settles gently into the furthest corners of the earth. A consequence of the increased sonic intensity is a greater prominence of guitarist Dave Bainbridge, who declares the arrival and supremacy of such wondrous power with a magnificent Steve Hackett style guitar solo, brilliantly phrased and maintaining and accumulating fiery energy across a full minute’s length until it bends and soars into the very furthest reaches of the heavens. When shrouded by the subtle underlie of angelic voices floating in midair, such a picture is the perfection of Iona’s musical vision, where modern and ancient, time and eternity, heaven and earth unite as one. The unbridled enthusiasm of their still virginal freedom has marked Open Sky as an irreplaceable moment in time at which Iona have created their magnum opus.

Compared to vintage progressive rock, including their influences of Yes and Genesis, Iona de-emphasize busy arrangements, quirky time signatures, and thick organs, choosing instead to achieve complexity by layering diverse and unusual instrumentation in the Mike Oldfield style, and departing from prog conventions entirely by manipulating sonic space and typically basic metric structures to evoke a sense of natural ebbing and flowing and maintain a suitably reverent, harmonious atmosphere throughout the album. While the keyboards supplied by Bainbridge and singer Joanne Hogg are abundant, they constitute only strings, ambience, choirs, and piano, which suggest roots and influences running deeper than 70’s progressive rock, into ancient times where vintage classical music ruled the world and Celtic folk was the music of England. The generally ambient role of the keyboards blankets the album with a hazy veil suggesting the connection between the supernatural and natural, incompletely present on earth, but always visible through a glass darkly. Such an effect is enhanced by the stunning production job. The cavernous dynamics of previous Iona albums are maintained; the audio quality is clear and rippling, as if the album was recorded outside nearby mountain springs, and each instrument is full, rich, and resonating as if recorded in mid-air. When instruments pile up upon each other, they all remain distinguishable, but their frequencies blend just enough to blanket the speakers with misty depth. The skillful production enables Iona to intricately explore three-dimensional space through sporadic sonic dynamics and combinations of instrumental layers, which transforms Open Sky from a simple piece of music into an immersive cinematic experience.

The result are pieces which physically move and build from one extreme to the other, everywhere in between, and back again. When played front to back, a piece such as Wave After Wave feels like a wave gradually building, beginning with van Essen’s jovial violin and Hogg’s hypnotic vocal lines, and set in motion by the gentle momentum of a switch to 7/4 meter. Bainbridge’s steady Robert Fripp style arpeggiated riff is enlarged by heavy reverb into a force that drives the entire band steadily forward as each member elaborates upon each other’s melodic themes and their voices join a rapturous hymn to the majesty of creation, through which the still greater majesty of the Creator is revealed. After a folk interlude where the wave comes to a temporary rest behind a mountain, Hogg’s vocal line pans through the speakers and rises to the peak of her range, steadily closer to the listener, as van Essen’s tom rolls also crescendo towards the eventual outburst over the mountain in which Bainbridge’s guitar erupts into sizzling electric mode. The wave, now as high and mighty as a tsunami, finally crashes onto the shore and the piece ends.

Castlerigg maintains this inexorable rollicking march while journeying across nine minutes of soundscapes. A soothing disembodied flute paints the tranquil English countryside, is overtaken by eerie echoing percussion and cymbals and a vintage English reel on Celtic virtuoso Troy Donockley’s uilleann pipes, all slowly fading into the mix to signal a fateful journey ahead, and soon most of the band joins in the reel; Donockley’s pipes sound so indistinguishable from a lead guitar that Bainbridge’s entrance is almost imperceptible, so seamless is the chemistry between not only the musicians, but the natural chemistry between the pipe and guitar. While the tune remains in common time as is traditional for reels, it imbues a steady momentum eventually accelerated by van Essen’s octopodian syncopated snare and cymbal dancing and bassist Phil Barker rapidly leaping from one theme to another. Like all journeys, this one must end, and the reel clatters to a halt and the music fades away into a scene of futility.

Bainbridge’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar chords are so fragile they sound like grains of sand slipping away, lending a fateful weight to the song’s single appearance of vocals, gently whispering “We really cannot stay…” Perhaps, in the context of the album’s theme, it is an ultimate realization of human mortality, that we really cannot stay on this earth forever even in its divinely created beauty, and the seemingly joyful march at the beginning was toward an anything but joyful fate. But a recasting of one of the melodies in the reel sounds far more uplifting when sung wordlessly by Hogg over pastoral strummed acoustic chords as patented by Yes, inverting mortality by affirming the permanence of Christian life beyond the grave. A breathy choral vocal layering sounds distinctly like Enya in both artistic style and vocal tone; Iona’s pervasive influence from Enya and associated New Age artists has been utilized to develop their now well-established technique, using vocal and synth layers to envelop the entire mix, portray a state of elevated spiritual awareness, and build towards a climactic zenith. The climax is unleashed when the already agile uilleann pipe reel is doubled in tempo and electrified by Bainbridge’s lead guitar as support, the pipes shredding as rapidly and van Essen’s drumkit crashing as thunderously as any heavy metal band.

The hypnotic simmer of Light Reflected was responsible for initially minting me as an Iona fan, keeping me in the fold while I spent weeks trying to completely appreciate their style. Twinkling cymbals, a distant echoing piano arpeggio, and Barker’s improvised trickling on fretless bass frame Hogg’s moment of quiet prayer and contemplation, in which she asks “Light of Light Eternal, light my way for me.” As multiple layers of keyboards begin to stitch together, the full band surges decisively forward as Hogg senses the heavenly gates opening, and a wash of distorted guitar feedback shines through the clouds. A brief but spectacular guitar solo victoriously shears through the arrangement and lights her heart and spirit on fire as choral patches hover in midair, then squeals into one final cry and smolders away into volume swells and an ambience recalling those found at a worship concert: suspended in silent awe and reverence.

Hinba is penned solely by Hogg, relating St. Columba’s voyage to that Scottish island whereupon he experienced a series of supernatural visions, and its intimate, understated nautical wonder is an effective contrast with its grander brethren, highlighting the supple timbre of her now fully matured voice which adds soothing and immersively layered texture wherever it appears. As the piece gently fades out underneath a rocky drum groove, the scene is set in the deep caverns of the island for an aural representation of Columba’s visions, in Iona’s 22-minute crowning achievement Songs of Ascent. The slow fade-in of multiple layers of incorporeal synthesizers feels like awakening from a week of sleep, and discovering oneself to be in paradise. Seas of soothing flutes and triumphant strings blanket a listener in clouds so thick and comforting that they seem almost solid. Throbs from cello patches and aquatic percussion filtered and dulled in the mix suggest this place is teeming with life. Hogg’s single vocal part is delayed until four minutes in, the lyrics deeply hymnal and acknowledging the supreme greatness of her higher power. Unlike most Iona albums, overt references to Christianity, God, or Jesus are actually very scarce to nonexistent, with God only referred to by other names or by implication, yet the sincerity of Iona’s living faith is palpable in every second of the album. The cavernous depth of Barker’s thickly layered bassline contrasts with Hogg’s gently ascending vocal line, the sonic space left in between them a depiction of her emptying of self: “An emptiness for You to fill / My soul a cavern for Your sea.”  At that moment, Hogg is one with herself, nature, and God, and the band leaves the stage to spotlight this moment of intimacy. The heavenly overture is reprised underneath a Latin rendition of St. Columba’s Altus Prosator, each of multiple vocal layers breathing and enunciating the words differently; the effect is so immersive it seals the listener with the power of the ancient prayer in the first of many unforgettable devotional moments in the piece. However, no further words are spoken for the rest of the piece, leaving the most spiritually moving aspects of the album not dependent on words.

In movement two, the voice, drum and bass almost completely disappear, letting the music flow entirely where it may as if entirely directed by a supernatural force. The mysticism of St. Columba is explored instrumentally by three distinct sections spontaneously developing from three mystical states of silence, one an earthy combination of bouzouki and primitive droning Celtic vocal, a second a foggy synth drone, and the third a traditional Scottish melody recast on piano. Over about three minutes each, entire universes are created out of nothing but the creative inspiration that builds each single theme towards a momentous overflowing point highlighted by a Bainbridge guitar solo. Of particular note is the second of the three climaxes, in which the foggy synth is overcast by ambient rain noise and percussion deliberately recorded to sound like thunderclaps, meanwhile a beacon of light is cast through the storm by the piece’s main theme played on uilleann pipes and a single reverberating electric guitar note. As the sanctuary grows closer and closer, the pipe intensifies until the guitar overtakes the entire mix with feedback and Bainbridge morphs the siren’s song into a song of rendezvous between human and divine on this shore. Strings dramatically swell until they distort the very fabric of the sky and bent guitar notes wail and weep until overcome with the ecstasy of the encounter. If prayer made a sound, it would sound exactly like this.

It goes without saying that I have undergone many extraordinary spiritual transformations and encounters with God while listening to this piece, such as during the last week I spent writing this. As the third movement evolved from a tender acoustic figure, earthy wordless singing became a folk spiritual song led by van Essen’s insistent violin, steadily growing in size and intensity towards a sonorous climax. I felt my body temperature rise over 10 degrees, my ears felt numb, and my eyes were completely full of water. Long after the following Genesis gone Celtic instrumental jam with lively time signature shifts faded away into the concluding ebbs of the piece, I was left with a tremendous sense of wonder and tranquility that transcended the power of mere earthly sound.

For the last seven minutes of the album, Friendship’s Door snapshots that mood by stripping down to nothing but an expansive silence, echoing vocals, and droning synth, capturing Hogg’s voice within a stillness born from awe at the natural wonders of the world and how they depict the even greater wonder of the world beyond the natural. It sounds like the whole band are perpetually holding their breaths at these things… “some of the things that take my breath away.” Iona albums tend to end with such a deliberate understatement as this, and their choice to disturb the tranquil fade-out with intermittent loud samples of previous songs on the album is the only criticism I can level at Open Sky. Other criticisms may be subjective. Fans of the more soothing, relaxing style of previous Iona records may find a harder sound less appealing. For fans of harder music, Open Sky is the perfect gateway into Iona’s glory, and it was among the gateway albums for this primarily progressive metal-oriented listener into progressive rock. However, the musical and lyrical richness grants the album a very wide appeal. Though it is undoubtedly progressive rock, the smooth arrangements and lack of esoteric lyricism or musical pretension allow the album to be challenging without being unapproachable. Though deeply Christian in expression, its spiritual depth extends far beyond merely words and into the deepest recesses of its musical skeleton.

Despite the nods to modernist composition including electric instruments, Open Sky is deliberately unadulterated by historical context and does not feel recorded in 2000, or any time period for that matter. It is a microcosm of 2,000 years of musical and cultural history, as mere mortals only achieve through communion with a supernatural channel that transcends time itself. And that achievement has transformed Iona from an excellent band into an incredible band, and Open Sky from an excellent album into a timeless masterpiece.

You can read more about IONA here (at their website) or here  (on their Facebook)!

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