For those who appreciate the solid song aspect of Iona above the airy, this magnificent concept album about Brendan’s voyage to America, interspersed with more contemporary subjects, is probably their best album – and now even better with a bonus disc.

Label: Open Sky
Time: 15 tracks, 69 mins / Bonus: 23 tracks, 77 mins

Opening with a whisper of a track in “Prayer on the Mountain,” the disc then bursts into life with “Treasure,” a fully-formed chunk of pop-rock that pulses with vitality and brings the listener with it. These are the two main strands of Iona: floaty instrumentals and regular songs, and the balance varies from album to album, but here they are not only beautifully interspersed, but there is more emphasis on the songs.

And then there are those other pieces, like the delicate “Edge of the World” and rock ballad “Murlough Bay,” that weld the two strands together. Likewise, adding to their contemporary topics is the deeply empathetic “Beachy Head,” with its tortured sax solo (from Mike Haughton, who at this stage has now replaced David Fitzgerald) and its tellingly abrupt finish.

Of the main songs, “Today” – a prime example of how to draw your listener into worship without resorting to the clichés so often used in CCM – is strong enough to have been a core part of the live set throughout their career, often with most of the band drumming in the middle.

“Murlough Bay” begins ordinarily enough, but builds to a powerful climax before easing back with the line, “Here at last, I’m on my own with you” sitting in a suitably calm setting. “Burning Like Fire” is another prayerful piece with a compelling hook, where Bainbridge gets a solo out on guitar.

Of course, there are pieces that blend the band’s extreme elements of song and ambience, and the delectable “Brendan’s Voyage (Navigatio),” with a rare foray into feature piano, is just one of those: instrumental in nature, but melodic enough to take a lyric if someone wanted. As it is, the tender piece is riveting as a track shining in its beauty. Its reprise at the end is just as terrific.

A topic like Brendan travelling from Ireland to America in a coracle as an act of faith inevitably will lead to reflective passages that convey the inner submission and long journey. “View of the Islands” is largely an acoustic guitar and flute piece, with a gleam of harmonics at the end, and the almost-improvised ambience of “Adrift” is as free and calming as the name suggests,

By this third album, apart from the opening section of “Bird of Heaven,” the brasher elements of Kells have dissipated, the tunes are refined, the whole works together, and – except for the so-so “Healing” – they simply don’t even put a toe wrong. It’s absolutely magnificent.    

Companion Disc: With the main album lasting so long, there is very little room for any new material (just less than three minutes of the sax-and-keys demo of “We Journey On”), so this disc majors on how tracks developed. The main feature is five tracks of “Bird of Heaven,” from a snatch of Nick Beggs’ 11/8 stick riff to a complete 2007 remix that improves on the album version.

There are also several demos cleaned up from cassette and fragments include alternative versions of the end of “Healing,” and a tin whistle solo from David Fitzgerald, from when he was still in the band.

As with the bonus Kells material, a solo harp track is included, this one of “Machrie Moor.”

Main album:
Bonus disc:
Derek Walker