In 2006 the British-based band Iona released The Circling Hour that I consider to be a true masterpiece. Only a rating of five stars could express my feelings about this outstanding record. It was the last album with Troy Donockley playing the Uillean pipes and the whistles. After fourteen years he decided to leave Iona. At the time he was busy being Barbara Dixon's co-writer, producer and musical director alongside touring extensively with The Bad Shepherds and Nightwish. Moreover, he felt increasingly uncomfortable with the Christian belief of the other band members. Simultaneously vocalist Joanne Hogg didn't want to tour mainly due to family commitments and her two young children. And last but not least the economic and financial crisis also had a negative effect on the band, because it was financially almost impossible to record a new album. So Iona's future didn't look that promising.
However, there's always a light at the end of a tunnel. Thanks to the husband of Clannad's Moya Brennan, they met Martin Nolan being an equipollent replacement for Troy Donockley. Nolan is a gifted pipe and whistle player from Dublin who also shares the band's religion. He hails from the traditional Irish music scene, but he also worked with many musicians from other musical genres and cultures, so he is very open-minded concerning musical genres. Even Joanne Hogg found new inspiration. After a period of eight years, in which she gave birth to her children, she often struggled in writing new songs. But this time she's got an outburst of creativity and she wrote many new songs for Iona. She even became enthusiastic about playing live again.
With all the noses pointing in the same direction, new Úlan and the help of God, Dave Bainbridge (guitars, keyboards), Phil Barker (bass), Frank van Essen (drums, violin), Joanne Hogg (keyboards, lead and backing vocals) and Martin Nolan (whistles, Uilleann pipes) started to record new material for an album. They felt so comfortably together that they created 95 minutes of music, so they decided to release it as a double-CD called Another Realm. During several live concerts in 2009 and 2011 I already heard some of the new tracks like the title track, The Ancient Wells, An Atmosphere Of Miracles, Let Your Glory Fall, Ruach and White Horse. Just like many other people I initially had mixed feelings about the new songs, although Ruach and White Horse immediately made a deep impression on me.
During one of the mentioned gigs, Dave Bainbridge told me that the songs would sound a lot better on the album. They needed some more time to adjust the songs for live performances. I think he was right about that because after listening to both discs several times, the album certainly began to grow on me. At first I felt a bit of a disappointment, but I soon learned that the music needs a different approach since the band had moved forward and didn't want to walk into the trap of delivering two identical records in a row. The new album contains strong compositions and the typical Iona-sound is still emphatically present. The pipes and whistles sound as if Donockley still joins the band, Joanne Hogg's voice sounds as crystal clear as it always did, Dave Bainbridge's guitar playing moves me just as it ever did, and I still hear Frank van Essen's tuneful playing on the violin and his fine drumming. The ambient keyboard parts appear on this album as well, so it seems that not much has changed compared to the band's back catalogue.
I'm not going to mention all fifteen tracks separately in this review; they're all high-leveled. It's nice to hear that the musical concept starts and ends alike. The first song As It Was and the final As It Shall Be contain the same kind of lyrics and the same melody line. It gives you the idea of listening to a conceptual album about heaven and earth and that all songs are linked to each other. The Ancient Wells and Another Realm are strong up-tempo tracks, Let Your Glory Fall and Clouds contain superb guitar solos, but the highlight on the first disc is undoubtedly the fifteen-minute epic An Atmosphere Of Miracles. This piece seems to be influenced by Clannad: the same kind of ambient keyboard passages while Joanne's vocals reminded me of Moya Brennan's way of singing.
Ruach, the first piece on the second disc is again a highlight. It's a beautiful instrumental and mellow piece whereon Frank's violin plays a great melody over the great orchestral keyboard parts of Dave Bainbridge. And The Angels Dance is an outstanding jig that invites the listener to dance. On Foreign Soil it's time to slow down a bit with some relaxing passages. Let The Waters Flow contains a leading role for the electric guitar showing that Bainbridge is a magnificent performer. The Fearless Ones and White Horse are two other superb compositions with many progressive rock elements. The first one is a dark instrumental track with some creepy elements due to the sound of ancient horns. White Horse is an eleven-minute musical journey; the strong parts performed on the guitar and the pipes and the breathtaking climax will bring your head in the clouds! I think this will become a classic Iona-track that will be performed during most Iona-concerts.
I can't finish this review without mentioning the brilliant design of the package. It really looks stunning and brings you in the right mood for the music on both discs. The warrior on the white horse suggests that Iona is ready to play some outstanding songs. Yet in spite of all these positive remarks Another Realm didn't have the same impact on me as the superb The Circling Hour. It isn't fair to compare both albums since each album has its own charm. I consider this latest effort to be a great piece of art, a fine album that will be loved by the people who are familiar with Iona's earlier albums.
**** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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