With its definitive line-up, this is as good as it gets: music full of emotional power, misty moods all mixed up with massive dollops of beauty and wonder.
Label: Open Sky
Time: 11 tracks, 74 mins / Bonus: 18 tracks, 68 mins
If Beyond these Shores is the best Iona album for those who like shorter songs, Open Sky is the peak for those who prefer the more atmospheric material.
Not that it starts that way. It bursts into life with “Woven Cord,” a lengthy driving instrumental that puts Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes up front duetting with Dave Bainbridge’s guitar and keeps up the energy with “Wave after Wave,” a song of wonder, whose time signatures and riff underscore the lyrical heart.
I love Iona generally, but this is another level. Beyond these Shores is excellent for its clutch of powerful songs dotted throughout beautiful splashes of atmosphere, but this is its reflective parallel, flesh-tingling in the best sense, taking you to places that even a lot of music does not reach.
Open Sky wasn’t just the start of their own label, but an almost definitive line-up that saw Bainbridge and Donockley as joint instrumental front-men; a multi-instrumental version of Wishbone Ash’s dual-guitar approach. Opener “Woven Cord” features Donockley bookending the nine-minute instrumental with a front-of-stage Uilleann pipes lead line, with Bainbridge taking a slower guitar solo in between. The pipes also take a lead role in the powerful rocked-up reel “Castlerigg.”
Despite three of the first four tracks having a rocky energy, the album soon goes ethereal to an extent not reached before. The following forty-odd minutes (half of that centred on the three-part “Songs of Ascent”) happen at a gentle pace, often dissipating into misty atmospheres with light beams shimmering through.
There are glacially-slow chord changes with distant echoey pipes joining the misty swirl. It almost feels classical. And when a melody eventually appears from the mist in “Part 2”, it is a pure, gentle harp, playing the Gaelic tune “Gentle Dark-eyed Mary.” It’s magical; it’s goosebumps all over.
Where the songs occur in this collection, the tunes are still strong, but stripped of the energetic production that made their early compilation album Treasures a trove of rock ballads. Here, they are easy smiles on the album’s face.
This album also sees drummer Frank van Essen featuring his violin in a prominent way: the short “A Million Stars” is essentially a violin solo with wash behind it, and his bowing opens the scintillating “Wave after Wave,” before the track explodes into a 7/8 riff under Hogg’s pure vocal. Her lines “music in every sound, light beyond each cloud, hope in every dream” find the ideal musical launch pad here.
At the beginning, Iona’s lyrics espoused faith, but also events like the Berlin Wall coming down, Tiananmen Square protests and the tragedy of Beachy Head. Here, much is inspired by faith (“Light of Life eternal light my way”), but often expressed in wonder at nature, leading to songs of praise. Where some Christian writers use lazy shorthand (“I will surrender”) ad nauseum, Hogg writes lines like,
“Life is beginning like springtime in flower.
My soul is awakened with truth to astound me.
An emptiness for you to fill
My soul is a cavern for your sea.”
The album closes with “Friendship’s Door” – a melody that Bainbridge considers to be one of Hogg’s best, which she sings oh-so-slowly, preserving the tremendous sense of peace that has built up over previous tracks.
Companion Disc: This disc marks a powerful upgrade, with everything (apart from a Hinba demo) recorded on DAT, so no more lo-fi initial ideas. Only four pieces are sub-two-minute snippets, so there is a real flow to this for those who want to put it on and listen, rather than study song development.
That said, a rehearsal version of “Woven Cord” has a slower second half, giving it a far different feel from the final version; a demo of “Wave after Wave” focuses on the rhythm and melody (at this time without words); and early versions of “Song of Ascents Part 1” – also without the final words – are quite different to the final version, so we can get both the history of songs and an enjoyable alter-ego of the album.
This collection has nine tracks that never made it onto the album, although a few were used elsewhere subsequently, and several have had tweaks added for this release.
There are two versions of a Columba poem (one spoken, one with improvised vocals) that would have made it onto Open Sky, except it would have been “one quiet tune too many for the album,” and “I Cannot Understand” is an unfinished song in need of a chorus. “Lament for the World” is essentially a fuzzy Bainbridge guitar solo with Latin words improvised by Hogg.
A vocal version of “A Dhia Gheigil” is a Gaelic tune that made it – in instrumental form – onto the “Live in London” album and two versions of “The Spacious Firmament,” one an initial idea, close the album, and became a track on Hogg’s first solo album.