Kells took the band up that extra gear into a new level, muscular drama meeting moments of exquisite beauty. The companion disc to this re-release features over 30 minutes of fascinating new material.

Label: Open Sky
Time: 14 tracks, 72 mins / Bonus: 26 tracks, 75 mins

Whereas the band’s début was largely about the eponymous island, its history and the Holy Spirit, Kells moved onto the gospels, basing four tracks around the Celtic symbols for each of the gospel writers as found in the ancient illuminated manuscript painstakingly written and decorated by monks on Iona and later moved to Ireland for safety from Vikings, who would periodically invade the island and ravage as Vikings did.

(Surprisingly, given the Celtic link, when the songs were being assembled, Kells was being considered as a separate project to the next Iona album.)

The core band from the début remained (Dave Bainbridge – keys and guitar; Jo Hogg – vocals and keys; David Fitzgerald – saxes, flutes and whistles) but for this release, Terl Bryant officially joined the band on drums and Nick Beggs, fresh from chart success with Kajagoogoo, became the permanent bassist and Chapman Stick player.  I wonder whether some of the more muscular sections – such as on “Matthew the Man” and “Gethsemane” – are from his influence, as the band lost that ‘noisier’ character after he left, polishing a more refined and esoteric sound.

Commentators on John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” remark how the pictures on the vase capture moments of ecstasy, such as immediately before a kiss, when all is expectation. There is something of that same build-up to an expected release in the opening tracks here.

That subtle restraint on the beautiful “Kells Opening Theme” (reprised more powerfully near the end) and, to some extent, “Revelation” makes you feel that the release is imminent and could come any moment. It takes these tunes and makes them even more exciting, partly resolved when the sax break comes in at the end of the latter. Along with “Chi-Rho,” these feel like perfect tunes.

The four symbols in the book that represent the gospel writers are a man, a lion, a calf and an eagle. Each has a track and the first is an epic. “Matthew – the Man” comprises several three-minute sections, with a strapping percussion-and-Stick section bookending it and the most beautiful verse (sung here, unusually, over clear acoustic guitar) setting it alight. “Mark – the Lion” is a shorter piece that features sax from David Fitzgerald. “Luke – the Calf” is a delicate piece and “John – the Eagle” a more free-form improvisation.

Other tracks are based on details from the gospels, ranging from the exquisite and tender harp-led “Virgin and Child” to “The Arrest – Gethsemane,” a predictably darker and more angular piece.

Among such strong tunes and complex instrumentals, despite its sheer beauty, “the River Flows” almost gets lost.

The Book of Kells shows Iona as still a Celtic band, but with its pop sensibilities and proggier elements growing.

Companion Disc: As with all the bonus material in this 30th anniversary re-issue series, tracks are arranged in album order, but here there are more background pieces than on Iona. So “Revelation” begins with a piano-and-voice cassette demo, moves to a DAT version with Bainbridge, which features some tasty atmospheric percussion at the start, and then a studio mix with the whole band, with those drum fills and bass punches that add such strong emphasis. Where this song-development approach falls down is another lo-fi piano-and-vocals initial draft of “The River Flows,” which feels somewhat basic after the sound quality of the preceding tracks.  

But the song history element reveals some very interesting snippets, such as a track called “Tree of Life,” the end of which was used for “Mark, the Lion,” with the rest previously discarded. We also get a jig version of the main theme reprise, which was shelved in favour of the more majestic version that made the album proper.

The disc also features the beautiful layers of vocals and acoustic guitars from “Matthew, the Man,” while the pure solo harp track used on “Virgin and Child” is included here unadorned – as is the spontaneous worship from Kensington Temple in London that was mixed into final track “Eternity.”

The further bonus is over half an hour of previously unreleased material that never made its way into other songs. Even this discarded material has its strengths. Two strong and very different pieces sit cheek-by-jowl: the simple harp tune “Dun I” and “Watching You,” which has a dance track and a definite ‘80s/’90s feel. Bainbridge has slightly tweaked two pieces for this release: a jam he recorded with Fitzgerald after an Adrian Snell soundcheck and an earnest song about industrial pollution. Although it suffers from more lo-fi piano, “Hard Way to Learn” is a demo with a strong hook that Hogg sings alongside Frank van Essen’s violin accompaniment. It certainly could have been a decent album track.

So while the companion disc is fairly fragmented in places, it does offer some very interesting documentary material and a wealth of ‘new’ tracks, each of which is earns its place, if not setting the world on fire.

Main album:
Bonus disc:
Derek Walker