Dave Bainbridge Celestialpick-of-the-monthCelestial Fire's sweeping, often majestic music combined with thoughtful and literate lyrics create a one-two punch to both spirit and soul, resulting in a listening experience as devotional as it is entertaining.

Celestial Fire
Artist: Dave Bainbridge
Open Sky Records
10 tracks / 74:02

An hour and a-quarter ago I started to play Celestial Fire for the first time. It's not my practice to write a review without at least a few listenings, but then again you don't always hear an album like Dave (Iona) Bainbridge's new solo masterpiece. With the afterglow of 74 minutes of glorious, God-centered prog still lingering in the air, I think it might be fitting to try to write about what it was like to experience this music that I'll no-doubt revisit again and again. If I were to write the shortest of reviews right now it would be this: get this album, listen, repeat.

If you're a fan of Iona you'll know what kind of music to expect from Bainbridge. Those who are not familiar should expect three things for sure: soaring guitar passages, stunning keyboard work, and inspirational waves of orchestral prog. While there are certainly moments on Celestial Fire that would feel at home on an Iona project, there are also elements of Kerry Livgren (with and without Kansas), Yes, Neal Morse, and maybe even a little Zappa. Bainbridge gives us moments of startling musical fury giving way to pastoral acoustic moments, often switching gears from rock to jazz within a composition. Celestial Fire's sweeping, often majestic music combined with the thoughtful and literate lyrics (also by Bainbridge, sometimes partnered with David and Yvonne Lyon) create a one-two punch to both spirit and soul, resulting in a listening experience as devotional as it is entertaining.

Progressive rock fans will be thrilled with the combination at the core of the proceedings: Bainbridge, of course, delivering fiery, fluid lines on guitar and startlingly articulate keyboard work, Affector's Collin Leijenaar producing thunderously powerful drum work, and frequent Neal Morse side-man Randy George playing perhaps some of the best, most driving, and most melodic bass lines of his career. This is the engine that propels the songs on Celestial Fire, stoking the coals of Bainbridge's musical furnace while the strings of Frank van Essen and Corrine Frost and the 'ethereal vocals' of Salley Minnear and Iona's Joanne Hogg help to create the 'celestial' vibe. Less celestial but no-less effective are lead vocals from Damian Wilson and Yvonne Lyon, while Troy Donockley appears on several tracks playing Uilleann Pipes and Low Whistle. Of course there are other musicians (like Iona member Martin Nolan, also on Uillean Pipes) providing various extras here and there, but these are the main performers on the album, and they do a fine job weaving this aural spell.

It would be an exercise in futility to try to describe the songs on Celestial Fire, other than to say that Bainbridge builds powerful musical statements including everything we've come to love about his musical arsenal. I'll leave it to the more musically literate to explain the transitions from minor to major keys, the complex time signatures and the various technical devices used to create this grand and powerful album – I'll just say that more than once I had tears in my eyes, and that's enough for me.

Much of the music is about love and freedom. "More than religion that binds with its law / I see a freedom alive evermore," sings Wilson, from "See What I See." "Love Remains," a tour-de-force, and – for me, at least – the most powerful track on the project, is essentially a paraphrase of 1Corinthians 13, while the amazing "Innocence Found" illustrates the restoration of fallen man through a new look at the familiar Christmas message of the gifts of the wise men, showing the gifts as a symbolic restoration of 'all things that had been lost' in man's fall in The Garden.

There are all kinds of reasons to want this album in your collection: the spiritually evocative lyrics, the fiery soloing, the complex compositions... even the packaging, opening to a three-panel digipak-style case with stunning color artwork by Ed Unitsky (combined with amazing Hubble telescope images) and the illustrated multi-page booklet. It's all first-rate and, let's face it – just plain classy. Obviously containing many elements of Iona, yet less pastoral and more 'proggy,' Celestial Fire is a bold musical and spiritual statement that will have people shaking their heads along with me and saying, 'wow.' ...and for many different reasons.

Bert Saraco