Iona Live in Europe. This set shows why Iona is the model Christian band: power, calm, praise, proclamation, dance, muscular rhythms and adventurous time signatures – they are all here and excellently played.

Label: Open Sky
Time: 20 Tracks / 138 minutes

There are very few bands anywhere who are as consistently creative, inspirational and musically excellent as Iona. In 24 years, despite lineup changes, they have never released an album of lower than 4-star quality. Even artists like Bowie and Pink Floyd have made some stinkers in their time.

Iona's best so far is arguably their Live in London set, an excellent release that is a great shop window for their extensive range of styles, veering from acoustic to Celtic prog, via jazzy and rocky elements. Many Iona fans may be wondering how Edge of the World compares.

There have been two fundamental changes since then: losing popular, gifted multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley and releasing a superb studio double set (Another Realm), which features strongly in this release, as you would expect. (The track list also evenly features highlights from across the rest of their career, with a superb "Flight of the Wild Goose" from their début; "Luke – The Calf" and "Chi-Roh" from the Kells project; a muscular "Today" and this project's title track, both from Beyond These Shores; "Irish Day" and "Bí-Se I Mo Shúil, Part 2" from Journey into the Morn.)

Those two changes shift the balance of the material somewhat. New piper Martin Nolan does not have such an extensive range of instruments as Donockley, so the guitar duties all fall on virtuoso keys player and co-founder Dave Bainbridge. This means marginally less instrumental dueling, but Nolan is highly able on the pipes – his jigs have a bit more bite than Donockley's – and his presence helps a tighter focus on the more atmospheric spiritual pieces, as well as tipping the balance towards the band's Celtic stock.

The players are tightly gelled. Experiencing an Iona gig live shows just how intense Frank van Essen's drumming is (although that comes across less on most home systems) and the full sound of Phil Barker's bass matches its power, particularly striking in the ever-exciting and rhythmically potent "Wave after Wave".

The overall standard is too high to call individual standouts, but the title track (about Saint Brendan leaving everything he knows to follow the conviction that he should set out for another shore) communicates faith more powerfully than a hundred worship songs that offer token words about surrender. In a different vein, "Castlerigg/Reels" is its usual invigorating self.

The range of sound is as great as ever. "Today" is still built upon an '80s dance scene piano, while a more traditional dance ethic surfaces in jigs and reels, which have their own spaces and get bolted onto the end of other tracks (sometimes with an extra beat in the bar). There are progressive Celtic instrumentals and modern classical pieces featuring violin set against a keyboard wash; while the set is firm on the foundation of several more conventional pop/rock songs.

The new material fits in well with the greatest tracks. "Another Realm" starts hesitantly but hits the heights as an impassioned Jo Hogg sings "A place of miracles and wonders... is for us if we dare to believe"– as it does for the celebratory crowd-accompanied refrain, "Our King is here with us!" in "An Atmosphere of Miracles, Pt.3." Arguably, only "White Horse" has questions about its place here. It does take off, just, but still flies quite close to the ground.

So if you loved Live in London you will probably feel the same about this set.

Iona is a model Christian band. Integrating faith, worship and everyday life these live songs (played to mixed audiences in secular venues) are accessible in a way that lets Christian hearts celebrate and invites non-believers to move closer. Such intense musicianship earns them the right to proclaim the power of the other realm that we are all invited to experience.


Derek Walker

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