Iona – Another Realm: Tales of worship and warfare… Have Iona taken their eyes off the standard?

2011_Iona_AnotherRealmArtist: Iona
Album: Another Realm
Year: 2011
Grade: C+

In Brief: It pains me to give one of my favorite bands an average rating, but Another Realm is a bloated album that takes Iona in a somewhat uncomfortable new direction.

I can’t think of a band that I’ve spent more money on than Iona. While part of that is due to the band’s longevity – they’ve been around for over 20 years now, and I’ve been a fan for 15 of those years – I would chalk up most of the expense to the physical distance between myself and the band’s home turf, and the fact that physical releases of their albums have been harder for the average person to get a hold of ever since they went indie. Being from the UK and running their own label, anything a stateside listener wants to purchase has to be imported. That alone probably limits their fanbase across the pond, once you look at the conversion from pounds sterling and realize it could run you well over 20 bucks just to get your hands on a studio album. But this band is crazy talented – they’ve been wowing me with their raw instrumental talent and their heavenly blend of progressive rock with Celtic and jazz overtones, a style which has seen quite a bit of change since their inception, and yet which always feels like a delightful refuge from time itself whenever I pull out one of their records. At all phases of their career – even when Christian radio was playing some of their stuff back in the 90’s – I never felt like Iona cared much for current trends. The kind of music they make would have been more at home in the 70’s, quite possibly, though it’s devoid of the psychedelia that marks a lot of other prog bands, so even that might be a bit of a stretch. I tend to admire musicians who simply do what they’re passionate about, even when it’s a far cry from whatever might be en vogue. Iona’s commitment to their own unique vision of faith told through great artistry, and through the history of their native British Isles, has kept me coming back for every live album, their 4-disc box set, replacement copies of tapes on CD and then replacements when those CDs got worn out. Last summer, I even took a somewhat spontaneous weekend trip to Colorado to catch an extremely rare stateside performance by the band. People literally came from as far as Canada to catch the same show (or other scattered shows on that brief tour). Iona fans over here in North America may be a small, scattered lot, but we are generally a devoted bunch.

But it was at that live show – which was certainly a phenomenal demonstration of musicianship that ran well over two hours – that I started to notice the first signs of Iona genuinely letting me down. Their classic material from the 90’s, and also from 2000’s Open Sky, was gloriously recreated, just as it had been on their live albums. But their most recent record at the time, 2006’s The Circling Hour, was quite curiously ignored. The intervening years had marked a change in focus for the band, which had led to the departure of the seemingly indispensable multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Troy Donockley. It was really the triumvirate of lead singer Joanne Hogg, guitarist Dave Bainbridge, and Donockley that drove the band for most of their first two decades of existence, with Donockley’s influence pushing the creative envelope in ways that I think opened up a highly spiritual band to a highly secular audience (from what I can tell, a large part of their European fanbase aren’t necessarily Christians – and it’s always been my belief that if you make good art, people will respect that even if they don’t agree with your beliefs).

But upon hearing the new material that the band was working out for their upcoming release in 2011, it was pretty clear that they were headed in a much more deliberately “Christian” direction. Open Sky and The Circling Hour, while finding inspiration in the ancient writings of Celtic saints and passages from the Bible itself, were more esoteric, interpretive records. The new material, by comparison, just put the talk of worship and warfare right out there. The music was as complex as ever, but I found myself stumbling over Joanne’s brute-force lyrics, the juxtaposition striking me as odd for such an accomplished band. It became pretty clear to me at this point that Troy (himself not being a Christian) no longer felt comfortable in the band. I generally find it inspiring when people can work together despite differing beliefs to create something beautiful. Maybe to one person it’s what they believe to be the truth, and to another it’s just a beautiful story to tell. I’m sure the split was amicable and all, but I feel somewhat uncomfortable knowing that a band I held in high regard for their ability to express faith artistically took a step backward out of some sort of need to not “compromise” or what have you. There’s still plenty of talent remaining in the band (new pipe/whistle player Martin Nolan was certainly a Godsend, since he had some big shoes to fill and he can play a lot of Troy’s old parts perfectly while also actively contributing to the creation of new songs for this record), but I feel like the balance has been somewhat thrown off by this changing of the guard.

Another Realm finally arrived in the mail in June 2011, nearly a year after that landmark concert experience. The songs that the band had previewed at that show still rung in my head – some for good reasons, some for more ominous ones, and I gave the album its first listen with a weird combination of excitement and dread. At 95 minutes spread out over two discs, this is Iona’s longest studio album to date, and at least a good third of the material is instrumental. Being completely independent, there’s no one behind a desk at a record label urging them to curtail the excesses, which I appreciate in the sense that Iona has no need to worry about radio-friendliness, but I also find myself wondering if the feedback wouldn’t be helpful in the lyrics department. As in, do you really think your audience – even the subset that consider themselves Christians – will really be all that receptive to an album that’s so upfront about heaven and hell and spiritual warfare? Isn’t some of this stuff more powerful if you tell it as an allegory rather than just spelling out your beliefs in plain English? And was it really worth dragging out some of the performances for so long that the physical medium which holds the album has to double in size?

I can think back to long instrumental segments on The Book of Kells, or the “Songs of Ascent” trilogy on Open Sky, that sort of tried my patience when I wasn’t yet acclimated to Iona’s brand of aural storytelling. Kells is a particularly interesting album to go back to now, because its thematic approach, heralding the return of Christ as foretold by the four Gospels, while musically heavy on the “atmospheric instrumental” side of things, is the most similar thing to Another Realm out of Iona’s past discography. The difference is that Kells had a sort of natural rhythm to it – the individual tracks were woven together beautifully into a larger whole, even if things got a bit sleepy or dragged out a bit too long at times. Another Realm, by comparison, would probably try the patience of even the most seasoned Iona fan. Long, atmospheric passages take up enormous amounts of space, sometimes in between more lively instrumental jams that feel out of place, as if they were placed side by side with little rhyme or reason. I’m sure the band made every effort to think through the album’s narrative, as evidenced by the copious liner notes and the meaningful bookends on either side of the album. But those longing for the glorious jigs and reels and fiery guitar solos that capped off past epics like “Encircling” or “Castlerigg” will probably feel like a lot of Realm‘s longer passages don’t build up to much of consequence. Where Joanne’s lyrics don’t lean heavily on the charismatic prophecy stuff, they fall back on repetitive mantras that honestly sound a bit New-Agey if taken out of context. (To be fair, being easily mistaken for New Age music has always been one of the oddities I’ve noticed about this band.) Production-wise, even the liveliest passages feel held back a bit – Frank van Essen‘s drums don’t have the thundering presence they did on songs like “Woven Cord” or just about any track you could pick off of The Circling Hour. This whole album is like the anti-Circling Hour, honestly. If you thought that one was a bit rushed and harsh on the ears, then maybe this will be more your speed, but you know, Beyond These Shores remains my personal favorite, and it’s as hushed and intimate as anything they’ve done.

These clouds have a silver lining, though. A good handful of the tracks are quite musically accomplished, adding inventive time signatures or otherwise welcome complexity to songs that might otherwise fit a more traditional pop/rock structure. That’s good – they’d probably sound a lot like The Corrs if they didn’t make that effort. Despite the more blunt lyrical approach, there are a few songs which I think transcend the obvious grab at re-acquainting themselves with a CCM audience, and that just sparkle as simple statements of faith without providing too much bait for those who might be prone to theological nitpicks. Honestly, this could be a very strong album if some of the weaker points were edited down, or perhaps some of the musical interludes were moved to more logical places, streamlining the listening experience so that it’s more about getting caught up in the moment, the mood of the story, rather than being perplexed and waiting for the next interesting thing to happen five or ten minutes from now. As it stands, Another Realm is still a notable example of a band with creative energy positively spilling over the brim. They just aren’t quite harnessing that energy in what I think is the most effective way they could, which leads to my average/slightly disappointed response.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

DISC ONE

1. As It Was
The album opens with a framing device that has become a mainstay of Iona’s albums – a thematically important intro piece that is in some way repeated at or near the end of the album. In this case, it’s a spacious invocation that floats in on Joanne’s atmospheric keyboards and strands of acoustic guitar. The words are based on a 6th century prophecy by St. Columba, who founded the mission on the Scottish island from which the band gets its name. The words are familiar – “Iona of my heart/Iona of my love/May this be a place where Heaven’s glory rests/An open well of timeless love, of endless life/For Iona shall be/Iona shall be as it was.” I feel like I once read that, or something like it, in the liner notes to the band’s very first album.

2. The Ancient Wells
The call of Martin Nolan’s Irish bagpipes and the tribal thump of Frank Van Essen’s drums bring us into the first fully realized piece on the album, which also refers to the words of an ancient Saint – the more well-known St. Patrick in this case. The song is a prayer for God to re-open places of special power, places that were once considered “wells” or portals where God’s presence is most strongly felt on the Earth. The isle of Iona was one such place, according to the liner notes (which also mention Azusa Street in Los Angeles, oddly enough!) Essentially, the song puts Iona’s own Celtic spin on a call for revival, which is a common theme on the more charismatic end of the Christian music spectrum. Musically, the piece is a treat, maintaining a brisk pace with Martin Nolan and Dave Bainbridge playing one of their trademarked tandem solos on the pipes and electric guitar, and the whole affair drawn out to a glorious seven minutes. But the lyrics are the first of many that will cause those uncomfortable with the Christian jargon to cringe a bit: “Let us call out to You and declare Your holy Word/Let us prophesy in every direction.” Or, to be even less subtle: “Let us climb the high places, declaring Your Kingdom/Close the gates to the devil in every direction.” Somehow it just doesn’t jive with the metaphors about wells and water and rain, especially when Iona has sung such convincing songs of freedom and healing and yes, even revival in the past without needing to lean so heavily on the jargon. That gives me mixed feelings about a song that would otherwise be an exhilirating, exotic musical adventure.

3. Another Realm
The title track, which seems positively lean by Iona standards at a mere five minutes with a rhythm that kicks in immediately and a more standard verse/chorus structure, is quite likely their best shot at a radio single. Honestly, Christian radio would probably bite if people didn’t have a tendency to recoil from music that remotely reminded them of the Titanic soundtrack. (It doesn’t sound anything like that, but the average CCM listener seems to have that response whenever they hear anything vaguely Celtic.) It aptly sums up the album’s theme of God’s glory being shown on Earth as the lines between it and Heaven are blurred. I’ll admit that I enjoy the chorus which simply longs for that merging of the two worlds: “And Heaven’s portals open to the sound/And Heaven’s light is pouring to the ground.” But the lyrics seem to waste space that could be spent inviting us into this mysterious place by way of an imaginative description, simply by spelling it out in perfunctory plain speech: “There is another realm/Of spirit and of mystery/And there are keys to unlock it/Only the heart has eyes to see.” There’s no room for intrigue there, no compelling reason for those unfamiliar with the mystery to consider it – just a matter-of-fact statement that it exists. Thus, my interest in the song is halfway gone by the time Frank’s tasty violin solo rolls around.

4. Clouds
Of the four new songs that the band treated us to on their US tour last year, this one struck me as the biggest blunder of them all. It’s really too bad, because there’s a stately piano ballad at its core that develops into a wonderfully intricate instrumental passage, the rhythm subtly shifting just as the light changes as the sunlight peeks through at differently angles while clouds move across the sky. Those clouds are a physical phenomenon to which spiritual significance is described by way of the concept of “glory clouds” (which, I kid you not, Joanne actually claims to believe in). Of course, as a Christian, I do believe that God created these things and that they reflect His glory, but I grow wary when we ascribe specific meaning to them as if to say they indicate some big historical event looming, when in fact, it’s just God’s way of delivering moisture to places that need it while making something pretty for our eyes in the process. Curiously, Joanne proceeds to give us a bit of a hackneyed science lesson – and keep in mind that I am not making up these lyrics: “Oh, have you seen the clouds?/Have you observed the skies?/There are storm clouds gathering all around the globe/Aescalatus, cumulus and noctiluminescent/Cirrus and stratus flung across the sky/Oh, there is something stirring in the heavenlies.” YIKES. I’m relieved when this transitions into mostly instrumental mode at the song’s climax, the big, ringing electric guitar solo and pounding drums eventually falling away into more of a breathy, acoustic passage, which I must admit segues beautifully into the next track.

5. An Atmosphere of Miracles
That heavenly wash of vocals, with Joanne’s breathy whisper “Our King is here with us”, should be the start of something positively epic, given this track’s 15-minute length and the fact that it’s listed as having three separate segments in the liner notes. Iona’s “trilogies”, often the band’s longest tracks, are generally the centerpieces of the albums they occupy, and thus far this is the longest one they’ve attempted. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t rank anywhere near up there among the greats. It’s a piece that continues showing promise, but remains stuck in wispy, atmospheric mode for way too long to really build up much momentum or interest. It’s a shame, because Joanne’s vocals are beautiful, and also skillfully layered with the keyboards and occasional flute or whistle. But it all seems a bit immaterial as she’s singing nothing but flowerly “la la”s again and again for the entire first segment of the song. That segment, titled “When We See Beyond”, falls away into full silence before the second segment, “Intimacy” picks up a few seconds later, feeling like they might as well have put it in on a separate track since it’s a completely distinct movement. This piece is more acoustic in nature, based around acoustic guitar and what I’m guessing is an autoharp? It’s a beautiful instrument, and it helps to show off the range of the band’s ability, but there’s no solid rhythm to anchor the piece, and Joanne’s vocals are indistinct, possibly Gaelic or some other ancient language, or possibly just vocalization for its own sake (the liner notes don’t show anything for this section). Like the first segment, this goes on for a bit longer than it really needs to, meaning that we’re a good nine minutes into the track before we finally find solid ground with the final segment, “An Atompshere of Miracles”. Here Martin’s pipes echo Joanne’s vocal melody from the first segment, and finally the drums kick in at around the ten-minute mark, and actual English lyrics appear: “When we see beyond/What appears to have died/When all is restored/To be as it should/In an atmosphere of miracles/When courage rises up/And the power of fear/Is defeated in love/Our ing is here with us.” Actually, that’s kind of a beautiful sentiment, albeit somewhat cliched in its expression. It’s got a feeling of having come full circle, reminding me of “Brendan’s Return” near the end of Beyond These Shores, and when it climaxes in heavenly flutes and synthesizers and guitar reverb, I actually feel like this could have been better placed near the end of the album, with the other segments of the track used as interludes partway through the album instead of everything stuck together here and completely killing the forward motion built up by tracks 2-4. So much of this is a genuinely beautiful listening experience, but more than ever, this is where the band seems to desperately need an editor. Not an overbearing producer or anything – just someone to give them a reality check and say “Hey, do you need to go on this long in order to get your point across?”

6. Let Your Glory Fall
Unfortunately, the massive gap that the previous track creates in the middle of the first disc ends up stranding the album’s best song in a bit of an odd place. This one’s the closest Iona comes to a fiery rocker on Another Realm, and that’s not to say that I expect fiery rockers from Iona, but I could tell from the opening minutes of this one when I heard it live last year that it was going to be a lasting favorite. Dave Bainbridge’s electric guitar confidently leads the way while Frank pounds out a tricky rhythm of 7/8, which becomes the backbone for, of all things, a straight-up worship song. Just read the lyrics: “Let Your glory fall/Let it fall here/Holy Spirit come/Please, won’t You come here?” Such a simple and repetitive chorus, but the melody has a way of advancing on you, sweeping you up in its path, doing some real justice to the majestic being they’re inviting to fill the space around them. From a theological perspective, it’s one of the more literate songs to describe the Holy Spirit that I’ve heard in recent years, going beyond the simple touchy-feely stuff you might hear from a lot of Hillsongs wannabes and actually pointing out that the Holy Spirit is here to bring sin to light, to burn out anything impure, to convict and change us in a lasting way, not just to make us feel dizzy and swoon and stuff. Again, that’s churchy language that some will probably find uncomfortable, but it works better for me when the music does something to match the power of what the lyrics have to say. The song isn’t without its more intimate moments – the verses and bridge calm things down a bit as Joanne sings in more hushed, reverent tones, but the band is allowed to fully open up as the seven-minute song thunders towards its conclusion, with a glorious guitar solo followed by repeated cries of “O, Shekinah” (a Hebrew word referencing God’s Spirit dwelling among us – let it not be said that this band fails to do their homework!), and the entire ensemble eventually falling away until only Frank’s powerful, primal rhythm and Joanne’s voice remain. It’s a highly unusual song for Iona, but I’m confident in saying that it deserves to be mentioned alongside their best work.

DISC TWO

7. Ruach
The second disc opens softly, with a slow, reverent instrumental track led by Frank’s violin. In many ways, it reminds me of Open Sky‘s “A Million Stars”, though it’s about twice as long. The word “Ruach” means wind, and in this context is used to describe God as an invisible, creative force, according to the liner notes. There’s no denying that Frank can wring a lot of emotion out of his instrument, but I’m not sure if we needed six minutes of this, especially as the opening to the second half of our listening experience. The rest of the band plays a supporting role (amusingly including Frank himself on percussion whenever things get dramatic and the cymbals swell up, so this one’ll be tricky to pull off live), making this more of a transitional piece that would be better served as a brief intro/outro than as a self-contained track in its own right.

8. Speak to Me
Bagpipes and sparkling acoustic guitar call out to the listener in this otherwise sparse song about the simple beauty of creation. Remember what I said earlier about the clouds being beautiful in and of themselves and not needing to signify some cataclysmic event or what have you? This song seems to get that idea right. The trees and mountains and stars and so forth simply bear witness to the Creator, not needing to convey any mystical message beyond simply the fact that they are magnificent, awe-inspiring things that God invented. Though slow and full of pregnant pauses, this feels like a track that would have been more appropriate to open the second disc with, before leading into the more upbeat one that follows.

9. And the Angels Dance
Now here’s one that I really wish I could have seen live last year. I can only assume that they were still working on it or hadn’t written yet at the time. It’s got a light, lilting, rhythmic atmosphere to it, which oddly enough brings back memories of the band’s first attempt at a pop song twenty years ago, “Dancing on the Wall”. Except ten times better. Joanne’s voice wraps more warmly around the words, and the sense of celebration is more apparent as she describes the joy that resounds through the heavens when a soul is saved, when an honest heat seeks the Lord, when man tries to do right by his fellow man. It would be a simple, perhaps even perfunctory message if the chorus didn’t up the ante with a complex rhythm, punctuated by a beautiful tin whistle, which evolves into a tricky, but fully engrossing jig as the song gallops towards its finish. I’m as blown away by the group’s ability to re-imagine traditional Celtic music in a more modern form, in 10/8 time of all things, as I was when I first heard “Bi-Se I Mo Shuil, Part 2” on Journey into the Morn 15 years ago. You can tell the band’s having fun – they even preserved a spontaneous moment of Joanne laughing just for the heck of it.

10. Foreign Soil
Joanne’s voice leads this one off completely acapella – and I’m fully convinced for the first few lines that she could carry the entire song with only her vocals. However, I don’t mind at all that acoustic guitar and piano break in – it feels like more of a “normal” pop ballad compared to Iona’s usual stuff, but there’s a flute interlude after the chorus just to give it that special, otherworldly tint that reminds us who we’re listening to. Dave Bainbridge’s fingerpicking is lovely here, and so is Frank’s violin, though these elements are kept more subtle than in some of the more intricate songs. Joanne’s lyrics seek to find the sweet spot where the spiritual and romantic collide – she’s in a beautiful, but unfamiliar place, dreaming of being with the one she loves. That whole theme of exploring a foreign land brings to mind the entire Beyond These Shores album, and specifically my all-time favorite Iona song, “Murlough Bay”. I’d be kidding you if I said this song was half as good as what I’m comparing it to, but it’s still pretty without being overly corny (the laziness of tacking the words “it’s true” onto the second line of the chorus just to get a rhyme for “I dream of being with you” notwithstanding), and that’s more than I can say for the other ballads on this project.

11. Let the Waters Flow
I never thought I’d say that an upbeat Iona instrumental with a tricky time signature could feel like a waste of time. Maybe it’s just the placement on the album, or maybe it’s just the fact that this is a stealth instrumental (seeming to have lyrics, but in fact Joanne only repeats the title a few times as a simple mantra) that tricks me into thinking it might be something more. Whatever the reason, it just seems like an odd fit, a jam session that was fun for the band but that comes across on the record as being a bit too stilted, too controlled. Frank’s banging away in 11/8 time and Dave’s got some good guitar solo action going, just as Martin does on the pipes – so what’s my problem? I don’t know; it feels clinical, like it promises more than it delivers. Closer examination of the melody reveals that it’s actually a sort of reprise to “The Ancient Wells”, which makes me to wonder if the band didn’t do some conscious editing to keep from having a 10-minute song as the second track on the album or something. Maybe it’s the fact that Joanne just sings wordless background vocals throughout the entire thing. I keep expecting her to chime in with something that’s a better use of her talent. There are even some hand claps at one point that still fail to give the track the sort of jubilant feeling that it’s clearly going for. At the very least, they should have loosened up a bit on this one – maybe sped it up slightly, maybe given the rhythm section more room to improvise… I don’t know. It feels like something that would have showed up on the B-sides disc from Iona’s box set.

12. Saviour
I once said that The Circling Hour‘s “Strength” was Iona’s weakest song. I didn’t hate it, but its lyrics felt like they were leading up to a point that never got fully made. But I was wrong. Iona’s worst song is right here before us – a thoroughly ill-advised attempt at a grandstanding inspirational ballad that decries the immoral state of the modern world and repeatedly states its need for a Savio(u)r. There is nothing subtle, beautiful, or quite frankly terribly creative about the songwriting here – just imagine the words “Hell-holes on earth and souls that lose their way” coming from Joanne’s lips, and try not to convulse with horror at what’s happened to this ridiculously talented band to make them think there’s anyone among their fanbase who wants to hear this sort of dreck. Musically, it ain’t much to write home about either – just a dull, slow, 4/4 rhythm that slowly advances and tries but fails to work up to some sort of dramatic climax. Sure, you can dress it up with pretty flutes and whistles and breathy background vocals, but this sounds a lot more like something the wannabe American Idol contestant who attends your local Calvary Chapel would sing for the congregation on a Sunday morning, than anything I’d have even remotely expected from Iona in their heyday.

13. The Fearless Ones
So, have you ever heard of a “shofar”? Oddly enough, I actually knew what that word meant ahead of time, but for those who don’t, Iona explains in the liner notes that it’s a horn instrument, used in Hebrew society to signal an impending battle. The instrument emits a long, shrill cry that can likely pierce the air for miles – and the way it punctuates the opening of this track reminds me of the sudden bursts of noise that opened “Heaven’s Bright Sun”, which is one of Iona’s classic instrumental tracks. Would that this track were worthy of that one in any way, shape, or form – instead, it’s another in a line of disappointing Iona tracks that is getting worrisomely long at this point. It’s all sizzle and no meat, once again pulling the trick of feeling like it’s leading up to something with drums and cymbals tumbling down at odd intervals, the guitar ascending into the atmosphere to echo the shofar’s call to war, and of course Iona’s apparent specialty… long, tense periods of ambient keyboard notes or bits of vocalization hanging in the air, free of rhythm. One or two minutes of this could work as a pretty cool intro for the epic-length war anthem that follows. Five minutes of this, though, is just plain unnecessary. It’s like having a fire alarm go off, and then calmly waiting your turn to take the elevator to the ground floor of the building.

14. White Horse
Well, this is it – the final battle, the moment where Jesus comes riding in on the white horse and war is waged with the forces of hell itself. This is pretty obviously the song they had in mind when they chose the cover image, and as I’ve said throughout this review, this is the sort of imagery that will put off folks who either aren’t Christians or whose beliefs aren’t as charismatic as this. But for what it’s worth, this 11-minute anthem has some interesting moments. Tribal drums that pound in irregular rhythms as Joanne chants “Don’t look back/Keep your eyes on the standard”. The lyrics speak of swords and armor and horses and of course all of that is language which is used in the Bible itself. But I don’t know, it seems rather abrupt in context, coming off of songs about nature and lost souls. The reason this sort of language is often uncomfortable for me is because I’m so used to Christian subculture getting overly obsessed with the military metaphor, forgetting who the war is actually against, and mentally sorting people into categories of “us” and “them”. That’s not Iona’s fault, but it bugs me to hear the language when the time isn’t taken to really explain the context. I feel like Iona evokes a mood here better than they tell a complete story – there are a few quiet interludes where Joanne is simply singing “See His glory” over and over, and you know, we’ve been inundated with the word “glory” throughout the album without it really giving us a handle on the significance of that word. I guess what I’m saying is that while this track winds and wriggles its way through some interesting instrumental segments, giving everyone in the band a chance at a final hurrah before the album ends, I don’t really feel as compelled to take up arms and join the battle as they seem to want me to be. By the time it finally comes to an abrupt end after a repeated chant of “Gather up your reigns/Feel the wind blowing/The white horse is ready/To release His power”, I’m left wondering if this whole theme wouldn’t sound more palatable in the hands of a humorously, intentionally over-the-top hair metal parody band. I don’t mean to mock something that is clearly serious business for the members of Iona – but yeah, this is more than a bit pretentious.

15. As It Shall Be
As you’d probably expect, the final track is a peaceful postlude, a reflection of the prelude at the beginning of the album. It’s a bit more disembodied than its predecessor (lacking the acoustic guitar and all), but it’s a fitting end, wishing for the preservation of the special place that inspired the band all those years ago: “But ‘ere the world come to an end/Iona shall be as it was.” Somehow I feel like this and all the spiritual warfare stuff are part of two separate stories, but it’s been a long album and I’m tired, so I’ll let that little nitpick go.

It hurts to say harsh things about a band that I’ve championed so persistently throughout the years. But sometimes mediocre albums happen to some of the greatest bands out there, and c’est la vie. What’s more troubling in Iona’s case is that it’s a comeback after such a long absence, and also a bit of a redefinition after parting ways with an integral band member – so instead of hoping this is a blip on the radar, I kind of fear that this might represent the band’s future direction. But who knows. They could hear a completely different calling five years from now – which is about the average pace at which they put out albums anyway. All I know is that I can only cautiously recommend Another Realm to seasoned Iona fans, and that I probably wouldn’t recommend it – at least not as a starting point – to anyone previously unfamiliar with the band. I’ll cherish my copies of Beyond These Shores, Open Sky, and Journey into the Morn and get as many ears as I can to give those a chance – then people can spread out to the rest of the band’s discography as they see fit from there. Perhaps someday the band will return to that high level of quality, and Iona shall be as it was.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
As It Was $.50
The Ancient Wells $1.50
Another Realm $1
Clouds $.50
An Atmosphere of Miracles $.50
Let Your Glory Fall $2
Ruach $.50
Speak to Me $1
And the Angels Dance $2
Foreign Soil $1.50
Let the Waters Flow $0
Saviour -$.50
The Fearless Ones $0
White Horse $1
As It Shall Be $0
TOTAL: $11.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Joanne Hogg: Lead vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitar
Dave Bainbridge: Electric and acoustic guitar
Frank Van Essen: Drums, percussion, violin
Phil Barker: Bass
Martin Nolan: Pipes, whistles, flutes

WEBSITES:
http://www.iona.uk.com/
http://www.myspace.com/ionauk

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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2 thoughts on “Iona – Another Realm: Tales of worship and warfare… Have Iona taken their eyes off the standard?

  1. Pingback: Timbre – Sun & Moon: There is nothing light can’t touch. | murlough23

  2. Pingback: Lost in the Trees – A Church that Fits Our Needs: So sing your hymn of faith, ’cause I have none. | murlough23

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