Among many traditional Christian symbols, fire’s most famous biblical appearances are the Burning Bush from Genesis 3, and Pentecost from Acts 2. It represents light, warmth, passion, and power. Music based around the theme of fire should reflect all of these qualities. But to make fire into Celestial Fire requires a certain musical gravitas. The ability to combine the delicate and ethereal with the epic and majestic, and the loud and vigorous. The theme is suitable to the Celtic Christian expression of the British prog rock band Iona, as this form of the faith is often professed through spiritual mysticism and a relationship with nature. The symbol was used in the Iona songs Earth, Wind & Fire, Burning Like Fire, and No Heart Beats. Yet even an album in the style of their magnum opus Open Sky, their most energetic work, still did not have enough rock and roll to take the heat. So the theme fell on the shoulders of the solo venture of guitarist and keyboardist, and all-around polymathic virtuoso, Dave Bainbridge. Celestial Fire’s departure from the boxed confines of the established Iona sound sharpens Bainbridge’s armor enough to withstand this further increase in intensity, allowing the music to justify its symbolic title.
Iona’s more diverse array of genres, including more straightforward styles such as New Age and pop, necessitated a dilution of classic prog elements like unusual time signatures, excluding some entirely, such as Hammond organs and the Moog. Celestial Fire explores these more direct forms of Yes and Genesis influence, expands other influences such as the classically formatted pastoral prog of Mike Oldfield, and introduces influences from bands foreign to the Iona sound, such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Deep Purple and Gentle Giant. Celtic folk, including pipes, tin whistles, and folk-style acoustic guitars, and the guest contributions of all current Iona members (excepting their bassist) and several well-respected Iona alumni ground the album in their style. But Celestial Fire combines these with more contemporary atmospheres, including a more aggressive hard rock edge. The album never reaches metal intensity, but allows space for the metal backgrounds of the illustrious Damian Wilson, lead singer on four of the songs, and drummer Collin Leijenaar, more known for drumming at Neal Morse’s European live shows but also playing in the Dream Theater-styled progressive metal outfit Affector, and heard here with a double kick pedal in fleeting moments. Leijenaar’s prog rock influences and the clear callback to the sadly late Chris Squire by Morse’s longtime bassist Randy George form the solid backbone to the music, allowing Bainbridge, who mans all keyboards and guitars on the entire album, to expand his soundscapes further by drawing from the entirety of his musical influences.
Bainbridge’s electric guitar technique combines the emotiveness of Steve Hackett with the sheer angular technicality of Steve Howe and the sheer abstract composition of Allan Holdsworth. His keyboard skill is fearsome, preferring a more modern take on Keith Emerson and successfully updating his classically influenced style to a more rock-oriented context akin to Jon Lord, involving and augmenting electric guitars rather than taking their place. The technical flamboyance of Yes and ELP can sound just as imposing as the surprising level of heaviness found throughout the record. The combination of both extremes does complete justice to the title Celestial Fire and sets a new bar for the sophistication and relevance of Bainbridge’s music.
The timeless-sounding pipe melody comprising the brief Celtic introduction Heavenfield is a representation of the eternal and ageless, the booming timpanis a herald of the loosing of unlimited creative energy that comes as the 15-minute title track explodes into existence. Bainbridge’s layering of instrumentation is extraordinarily fastidious, playing several classical and electric guitars at once alongside various exotic percussion instruments to make the music sound like it was played by ten people. The celebratory introduction thus sounds that much larger than life, an intricate tapestry of the creation process making known the glory of its creator. The piece continues at the same pace while Leijenaar and George freely improvise within the song structure, seemingly never to run out of ideas and accenting the creative spirit invoked by the music and the upcoming lyrics. Bainbridge crescendos to one final note and echoes away along with the band, leaving behind the ambient throb of an infinitesimally thin veil between heaven and earth, through which a tender voice calls. Yvonne Lyon, one of the lyricists of the album along with Bainbridge himself and her husband David, is purposefully mixed low during the first verse and steadily increased to normal volume, as if the voice was approaching from light-years away. The homely acoustic guitar blooms the first spring, the first entrance of Wilson. His reedy timbre has always sounded like a more operatic metal version of Jon Anderson, able to fit comfortably into both this hymnal folk movement and the expansive climax to come midway through the track. After a hypnotic lead guitar solo, the band cools down to a halt and holds back in anticipation while Iona violinist Frank van Essen quilts layers of droning violins.
Like looking into the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano, a beautiful wonder of nature, but one whose clattering percussion and vocal and violin lines steadily bubbling upwards in pitch, authority and volume suggest an imminent tremendous eruption. A sudden yet somehow perfectly smooth jolt of volume. Cymbals crash, flaming keyboards and organs march out in an army, and Wilson’s voice soars to the stratospheric regions with operatic power heard in Threshold or Headspace. Heaven has broken through into earth and transformed it beyond recognition. The remainder of the track explores the transformative power of “celestial fire,” the Holy Spirit. The excited 7/4 meter hungrily surges through the landscape as the lyrics declare an end to all the pains, toils, and worries of earthly life, and gracefully fades away to leave an ethereal vista of wordless vocals and twinkling keys upon the rejuvenated earth. The theme of contrast between the natural and supernatural is common to Iona work, explicitly explored in Open Sky and their last album Another Realm, but given a fresh outlook by further development of sonic extremes. Celestial Fire is thus a step towards the logical pinnacle of Bainbridge’s musical and conceptual evolution.
See What I See is propelled by a muscular guitar riff, its simple structure but angular note choices directly influenced by Steve Howe, but made more urgent by the 7/4 meter and constant percussive syncopation. Jon Anderson’s spiritual musings common to classic Yes albums are brought to their logical conclusion by the dialogue between a pessimistic, earthly perspective of futility, despair and death, and an optimistic, heavenly perspective of destiny, hope, and life. Both of which can be the lens through which we view the world, and only one of which will triumph in the end. As the music gradually ebbs and flows in volume, layers of acoustic and electric guitars call and response along with Wilson, who constantly shifts between his low and high registers to hit some of his highest notes to date. Pessimism is overcome as Wilson enjoins the listener to see things how Bainbridge sees them. To “open your senses wide / to the glory that lies behind.”
van Essen’s violin is put to one of its best uses in The First Autumn, descending upon the scene of the autumn after the Fall of Man, before which there were no seasons. As they were expelled from paradise, Adam and Eve had felt sorrow at what they had lost, and fear of what was to come. Now the wounds reopen as the first autumn comes, freezing the life out of the earth that is all they have left of where they once were. The violin throbs with the dreary despair of the approaching cold and the fragility of the beautiful foliage. Iona singer Joanne Hogg’s contribution of “ethereal vocals” without words combine with scattered fragments of piano, the shattered remains of the perfect place that once was. If only humanity can endure this seemingly endless winter, the spring on the distant horizon will come again.
The resolution of The First Autumn occurs many centuries later at the birth of Christ. The forlorn violin and piano at the beginning are cut from the same musical cloth, but the tone soon shifts to a quaint, joyful folk tune, to which the Russian storyteller’s voice of Julia Malyasova is perfectly suited. The songs form a musical and historical cycle, drawing from a story of the Oriental church in which “when Adam and Eve rejected Wisdom and so lost Paradise, angels gave Adam three treasures to remember Eden; gold, frankincense and myrrh. So when the wise men brought these gifts to Jesus, it was symbolic of the restoration of all that had been lost.” The meaning of thousands of years of mystery finally crashes down upon the human race midway through the song, and upwards goes the overwhelming relief and gratitude as orchestration and percussion swell to a tremendous volume and Malyasova’s deep alto voice resonates even through that. Gentle Giant maestro Kerry Minnear’s daughter Sally’s cherubic timbre is the perfect herald for the titular message, that innocence lost has become Innocence Found.
In between these pieces is the 95% instrumental odyssey For Such a Time as This, knitting together seemingly every single genre Bainbridge has drawn from into a patchwork of his overall lyrical and spiritual message. The jazzy piano noodling that opens the piece is recast onto multiple instruments throughout, and its speed coupled with the 7 meter accentuates the piece’s lively, carefree spirit, a celebration of the higher purpose for which humanity was created. A sparky fusion-laced lead guitar, a rawer-sounding version of John McLaughlin, is as much a part of the grand design as a Genesis style mellotron solo, a jubilant dance to a funky bass and acoustic guitar, the touching acoustic solo that reminisces on our long journey and comes to a profound gratefulness, or a wordless praise hymn with Lyon exultantly chanting. For no words can express her joy of simply being alive and blessed. It feels like as much of an anthology of the journey of Bainbridge’s soul, from the beginning of time to such a time as this, as of the life of the universe. And it is thereby a flawless artistic expression of the intangible theme of possessing a purpose in the universe. As Bainbridge cranks up the volume to eleven to pound out the main theme on guitars and keys across a bone-crushing bass and drum battery, and Leijenaar’s drumming hits a career highlight in the explosive finale laden with violin and guitar riffing as sizzling as the best of Kansas, it is crystal clear that music is his divinely ordained purpose.
The opening of Love Remains, an almost chaotic interplay between an erratically punctuated, blisteringly fast rhythmic jazz piano and staccato drums sans guitars, later overlaid by another keyboard during the transition out of the segment, is a direct ELP homage that successfully sends its momentum crashing into the victorious Hackett-style lead guitar theme. Bainbridge’s choice of an expansive, folky chord voicing transports the listener to a rustic English abbey with stained glass windows, decorating the imagery of the lyrics, about St. Paul’s writings about love in 1 Corinthians 13. How love is the most constant and most powerful force in the universe, persistent through even the most trying circumstances. How we are “looking through a darkened glass” throughout our earthly life, as our understanding of love is only the tiniest scratch on the surface. But the glass is a window “into life and hope,” through which we see the greater existence on the other side. The sparse instrumentation hearkens back to the gentle, airy sounds of his first solo album Veil of Gossamer, whose title was a term for the divide between this world and the next. The music frequently shifts between mellow and intense, and even takes a mildly chaotic turn midway through as life’s journey ventures off the expected path.
Bainbridge’s use of various keyboard leads as embellishments to other instrumentation, usually the harder-sounding guitar riffs or the clattering Chris Squire bass tone, calls to mind Rick Wakeman or Patrick Moraz’s playing in vintage Yes but keeps his songwriting in the running with more progressive metal oriented artists like Dream Theater who employ this technique today. Here, George disrupts the tranquility of Hogg’s polyphonic chanting over soothing keyboards by pounding out a shredding bass solo under a jackhammering snare drum and thrashy guitar assault with dissonant piano improvisation. Such busy instrumentals throughout the album accumulate tension until Wilson’s expansive voice highlights the climactic release. Eight minutes in, the instrumental fireworks burst into the stately march of a moderately paced 6/8, its wide-open canvas the ideal environment for Wilson’s immense range and ability to display a commanding presence. He multiplies the uplifting atmosphere by layering his voice for a soulful tone with an immersive effect, encouraging the listener to have faith and persevere through trial until love wins the victory, even over death.
In the Moment leaves the world of dialogue to convey a real, documented story about some “amazing events” in the United States triggered by Iona’s music in 1997. Events so miraculous they can only be fully portrayed without words. The ethereal interlude reprised from Love Remains calls forth van Essen’s violin, which steadily rises in pitch to accumulate tension as is his wont, and released by Bainbridge’s euphoric lead guitar motif. It is the soundtrack to the descent of an army of angels, and the rejoicing of the long-yearning world around them. Again, Bainbridge masterfully harnesses decelerating momentum to increase the impact of sparse instrumentation, leaving behind a shimmering two-chord progression with faint slivers of seraphic voices, through which he tells the narrative of the story and its aftermath (see below).
The atmosphere is tranquil yet electric, thin yet engulfing. The opening of the Veil of Gossamer has stopped time. Gentle voices peacefully intone in harmony and tune everything around them into peaceful harmony. The lyrics are written in poetic form, but like an eyewitness account. Wilson’s delicate folk singing from his early days, way before he ever became a progressive or metal vocalist, sparkles with the hushed wonder of an eyewitness to the spectacular events. Lyon harmonizes with Wilson as the group congregates together in thankfulness. Even after the visitation has ended, Lyon envelops the entire mix as they pray for that presence to abide with them always, bestowing upon them the gifts of joy and restoration in every day forthwith. To live in this moment forever. As the remaining album is instrumental, Wilson’s recapitulation of the ending statement of “this is where we belong” comes to encapsulate the spiritual vision of Celestial Fire.
First comes the victory, as the full band triumphantly crashes into the main motif and stately march forward with Bainbridge squeezing into his guitar every ounce of emotion he has. Second, the victory party. The tone shifts from reverent to muscular as a Jon Lord-style rock organ solo charges over a high-octane bass gallop with pounding double kicks. It soon reveals it is not in straight time, as one 16th note is abruptly cut out to make 15/16, among the various ways Bainbridge smoothly employs arcane time signatures to amplify the music’s punch. The shift in tone is a surprising aesthetic choice, but one that will be understood by any frequent concertgoer. A moment like this is one which unites an entire audience in awe and celebration, forging the same type of brotherhood that Bainbridge depicts as an eternal brotherhood of believers.
Still, my most striking experience with this song is how my version of it is unique, as the volume is silenced from 4:53 to 4:54. The artist confirmed this should not be there and was probably a pressing error. However, because it came right after the words “shadow falls,” I was convinced it was a completely intentional means of depicting the lyric. Coincidence…or maybe not? It has become an inextricable part of the album and dramatically intensifies the supernatural mystique behind the song. It makes paradise feel closer than we think. Not distant, but accessible right now.
On the Edge of Glory, the Celtic coronation march that closes the album, is placed as a postscript to the album to convey this reality: that the glory we have experienced is, although vast and mysterious in its infinity, not distant or unattainable, but available to us now, within our fingertips. It has inspired me to seek perseverance in faith through a season of spiritual dryness. Yet Celestial Fire is inspiring in a truly elevated plane. It makes accomplishing the greatest deeds seem like child’s play. If only one believes.