Monday, 7 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #46: The Book Of Kells (1992)

Celtic prog rockers Iona make their first of three entries with The Book Of Kells, a concept album based on an 8th-century illustrated manuscript of the gospels, and their second album overall. Iona formed in 1990, comprised of vocalist Joanne Hogg and multi-instrumentalists David Fitzgerald and Dave Bainbridge. The line-up remained relatively fluid initially, while retaining the three core members. The group released its self-titled debut, a concept album about the island of Iona, in June of the same year. The album featured a number of guest musicians, like Franz van Essen (drums) and Troy Donockley (Uillean pipes), both of whom remain in the line-up to this day. Occassional live performances and a warm reception of the record created a growing reputation for this supergroup in disguise. By this time the core trio had been joined by two more full members, Nick Beggs (bassist, formerly of Kajagoogoo) and Terl Bryant (drums).

'Kells Opening Theme' does what it says on the tin. It kicks us off and already we are treated to one of the most beautiful female voices in music. Joanne Hogg's voice is pure, clear, crisp and haunting against the elegant backdrop created by the keyboards. If you close your eyes and listen to her voice, you will be blown away to a rugged, unspoilt landscape. The elegance of her voice allows her to flow over the lyrics effortlessly - lyrics which, incidentally, have a very unusual structure. What a great start.

'Revelation' takes up the baton from the opening track. With its serence combination of pipes and acoustic guitar, it's a warming and very spiritual track. Hogg demonstrates her range and her voice carries well; unlike Enya she does not have to rely on fancy production to convey emotion. Terl Bryant's drumming might begin pretty basic, but at the end of lines it's fantastic, if a little 1980s. Finally, 2:45 in, Dave Bainbridge unleashes a peculiarly jaunty guitar solo to complete this live favourite.

The next track is one of the greats in modern prog rock. 'Matthew - The Man' may well be the longest track on the album, clocking in at an almighty 11:54, but unlike a lot of prog it isn't drawn out and it isn't allow to bog down. Instead, the instrumental sections are allowed to unfold at near-perfect speed. The keyboards are beautiful, the pipes come in at just the right instances, the bass is deep and guttaral, and the percussion from Messrs. Bryant and van Essen is superb. When Hogg finally arrives, she hardly disappoints, preceded as she is by a wailing acoustic solo. (N. B. If you think this version is good, check out the live version on Woven Cord (2005) - Frans van Essen's drumming is spectacular).

Having done so well so far, 'Chi-Rho' comes across as a poor relation. It's acoustic-driven with lyrics which are both more oblique and delivered more breathily. And that's not good, because it robs Hogg's voice of a lot of its purity, turning her into a worship band singer. The drums are too loud and sound fake. This is a well-structured song, I will admit, but structure alone is not enough to sustain your interests.

'Mark - The Lion' is the second of four tracks which (attempt to) sum up each of the gospels; they are personified as each of the four creatures which made up the angels in Ezekiel 1:10. While 'Matthew - The Man' was replete with thundery bass and wailing acoustic, to indicate the juxtaposition between strength and humility in mankind, this is percussion-heavy, beginning with what sound like bongos being faded in. They sound good with the distant shimmers of the keyboards; but it is only once we pass 1:01 that the track really takes off. Here the rock drums and saxophone take over, and we glimpse the raw, majestic power of the running lion. It's another piece which relies on your imagination to carry the instrumental - just as a concept album should be.

'The River Flows' is similar to 'Chi-Rho', insofar as it's acoustic-led and it falls short of the high standard set by the other tracks. The lyrics are just too simplistic to justify the length of the song (5:01). And the percussion feels flat and repetitive - in all, this has the feeling of filler, one of the main complaints about the album upon its release.¹ 'Luke - The Calf', meanwhile, opens dramatically, first with the sound of waves and then some beautiful, full-blown violins. Listening to this is like lying on a calm beach with the tide slowly coming in, while being gently massaged. The flute part is so sweetly tuned to the song's needs, it was as if God himself had written it (directly or indirectly, depending on what you believe). Most importantly, though, like its two counterparts, you do get an image of a calf - if you can drown out the beach for long enough.

'Virgin And Child' has to be one of the most beautiful songs on here. It's built around a simple phrase on a harp which sounds like a highly-tuned acoustic - which on the basis of the previous tracks might spell underachievement. But here, the guitar guides the piece; it doesn't lead in the traditional sense, it simply anchors it, so that when the flutes come in in the final minute (along with the violins), it doesn't feel crowded. It's another work of complete beauty.

'Temptation' is, by contrast, a lot more dark and aggressive than the other songs we have heard so far. In the opening minute, all is well: the mood is set, the ears are retuned and we listen intently. But at 1:15, it becomes strange, taking on a bouncy characteristic. It sounds like a forgotten outtake of Passion (1989) in its use of Eastern sounds - Dave Fitzgerald, who played sax on 'Mark - The Lion', switches here to the suona, a kind of Chinese clarinet. All very well and good, but this piece has less substance (like a lot of stuff on Passion, as a matter of fact), and so it has all been in vain.

We quickly get back on track, though, so don't fret. 'The Arrest - Gethsemane' sees Fitzgerald returning to the saxophone. Backed by Bainbridge's reverberating keyboard chords, it sounds absolutely gorgeous. This feels meticuously well put-together, creating the perfect wailing backdrop to the beginnings of the Passion (Jesus' arrest and anguish before his crucifixion). By now, one thing you will have noticed is that Hogg has been absent for quite a long time. Not that her absence is especially a bad thing, since her vocals, rather than lead a piece, blend in to the lush instrumental work. But this is the fourth track without her.

'Trinity - The Godhead' is the fifth. It's longer than most of the instrumentals, and it is a lot slower than many of them. But that doesn't matter, not one iota. Why? Because this is a sensational track, a beautiful soundscape which blends perfect musicianship with spacious production. This is one of the few tracks that when, you listen to it in stereo, you feel like you're listening in quadrophonic or 3-D. The shimmering keyboards capture the celestial, ethereal qualities so marvellously, and despite the high quality sound you feel like it is all down to the musicians, not the producer. The saxophone dances through this glorious piece once again, completely this stand-out track. It's not just the best track on the album, it's one of the best Iona have ever written.

'John - The Eagle' completes the quadrilogy of tracks which sum up the gospels. And it works, achieving its aims in spades. The image of an eagle cresting the highest winds is constantly in your mind as Fitzgerald pushes his sax playing to its limits, creating something brilliant in the process. This feels a little more overproduced than the other three, but that's not a massive reason to hate it, especially when the piano in the second half sounds so good. This feels so good to listen to that you just won't care.

'Kells' - the title track is the wrong term here - is essentially a reworking of the opener, with a quicker tempo, more pipes and rockier drums. Now you can tell that van Essen is at the helm and enjoying himself - his licks are just as brilliant as they are on Woven Cord. Hogg makes a great return, and contrary to expectation her voice does not fall flat when confronted with a quicker pace of song. The whole band feels tight and the result is very bright.

We close with 'Eternity - No Beginning, No End', yet another instrumental which drags the tempo back down to a near crawl. Not that it's a bad piece of work - au contraire. The instruments may sound a little strange, but given the time and space they need, they create something genuinely great - angelic yet spooky. Van Essen's drumming is simplified, but he remains on form, and the mysterious vocals at the end are a perfect way to wrap things up.

Progressive rock is the thinking person's rock, where metal is the headbanger's, punk is the loudmouth's and indie is the awkward hedonist's. Falling as it does within the prog genre (at the distinctly unpretentious end, of course), The Book Of Kells both requires your full attention in order to engage you and engages your full attention when you listen. Some criticisms made of it are true - it is a trifle too long, there is a fair bit of filler, and there are not enough vocals. But this is still a splendid piece of craftsmanship. This feels like a soundtrack album, not just because it is full of instrumentals, but because it feels rich and atmospheric. Maybe hit on something in its review: "Given the deep thought and consideration required to understand this album fully, it does serve as a soundtrack for the mind's eye."² If nothing else, The Book Of Kells is perfect proof of life left in a genre which the popular press had long pronounced dead.

3.86 out of 5

¹ David Sleger, 'The Book Of Kells', Accessed on January 12 2008.
² Ibid.

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