Saturday, 28 June 2008

Top 100 Albums - #35: Woven Cord (1999)

Iona's second entry on the chart is Woven Cord, their second live album. This was recorded with the All Souls Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London, on May 29th 1999.
Iona's first three releases established them at the forefront of Celtic progressive rock. Their self-titled debut (1990) was a tribute to the island's history and Christian heritage. The follow-ups, The Book Of Kells (1992, #46) and Beyond These Shores (1993) were loose concept albums, the former looking at the eponymous 8th-century manuscript, the latter focussing on the 9th-century voyage of St. Brendan across the Atlantic from Ireland. Between these albums founder member Dave Fitzgerald (saxophone) left the band to concentrate on his teaching career. With sales remaining low, the band's next effort was the more commercial Journey Into The Morn (1996), based around the modern hymn 'Be Thou My Vision'. This was followed by a greatest hits album, Treasures (1996) and a tour to support it, captured on the live album Heaven's Bright Sun (1997). This would be Terl Bryant's last album with the band before Frank van Essen replaced him on drums.

We kick off with 'Overture', a 5-minute instrumental designed to settle us into the feel of the album. Of course, since this was written by Troy Donockley, we get the usual whistles and pipes; but we also get the richer sounds from the string section, something which would feature more prominently on Open Sky (2000). The slight downside to this is that a lot of the traditional Celtic edge is lost in the old-fashioned, haughty grandeur of the arrangements. But overall, you have to say, this compliments the Iona sound very well, raising it to the level of a film score.

Even once you have figured out how to pronounce 'Bi-Sé I Mo Shuìl (Part I)' (say bee-suy i mo-hool), the song itself remains a disappointment. Taken from Journey Into The Morn, this is, aside from anything else, an unsatisfactory way of introducing the great voice of Joanne Hogg. Oh sure, she can do the Gaelic pronounciation no problem, but you are left thinking that her entrance would have been a lot better had the song blended with the orchestral accompaniment. On record, this works; live with an orchestra, it doesn't.

No problem though, because we can now move on to 'Matthew - The Man'. As I said in my review of The Book Of Kells, this is one of the great tracks to have come out of prog in the last decade or so. While the album version began with shimmering keyboards and thumping great bass lines, this is driven by a duel between Dave Bainbridge's wailing guitar and Frank van Essen's thundery, dynamic drumming. This may be even longer than the album version at 13:01, but like the album version there is no room for dragging solos. One unfortunate change is the loss of Bainbridge's tear-inducing acoustic guitar solo, drowned out here by the keyboards. However, van Essen more than makes up for it with his subtle but full-bodied fills - the section from 9:17 to 10:27 is just about the most euphoric drum and guitar section you are ever likely to find. It is utterly spectacular.

After all that drum-and-guitar euphoria, 'White Sands' takes things down a notch. With its oboe and clarinet opening, you are transported to a distant beach and are utterly relaxed when you get there. This track, from Iona, is where Donockley really gets into his stride. Backed by what sounds like a bouzouki (akin to a lute or mandolin), he performs a beautiful piece on whistle. The shrill descant of the whistle rises above the slow gushings of the bouzouki chords, while the violins provide what could be called the alto part. This is perhaps the track where you most notice the production; every note has been captured immaculately by Bainbridge.

'Murlough Bay' is from Beyond These Shores, and begins as brightly as the album version. Hogg is back and in fine form, showing that her performance on record can be perfectly replicated live. No other female voice suits the line And here at last I'm on my own with you so very well. Her voice is pure like cut glass, but unlike many singers of such talents there is emotion as well as quality. There is very little to differentiate this from the album version, but then again Iona are never the sort of band to add in lengthy solos to show off; the audience are already well aware of their talents and respond accordingly.

'Dancing On The Wall' is another "oldie, but goodie" as Peter Frampton would say. In its structure, this is considerably more poppy than anything the band have produced since; it is even more the case when we listen further and see the restraint with which instruments are being used. But that is not really a problem. Although this is for the most part just vocals and an acoustic guitar, this is not singer-songwriter schmaltz. The chords are complex and intricate, and the lyrics a damn sight more merry, as is the finished product.

Hereon in, things get a little more hit and miss. 'Encircling' clocks in at 12:25 and most of that is overkill. The lyrics are not as compelling as before, and we get the first hints of van Essen's irritating tendency towards flashy playing. The drums do way too much in this piece, and Bainbridge has put them right at the forefront of the mix so that their effect is unmitigated. Unlike on previous long tracks, the instrumental sections do drag, turning the whole thing into a bitter disappointment.

If you can endure this superfluous epic, you are duly rewarded with the best track on the album. 'Lindisfarne' begins very tentatively; under a slow murmur from the cellos the higher-pitched instruments one by one poke their heads up above ground, like the first flowers of spring. This again has a film score feel to it, rather than just an orchestrated rock song. It is hard to believe that both this and 'Encircling' came from the same album (Journey Into The Morn), because they are so utterly different. Where that was bloated and drawn out, this blends beautifully from one section to the next, and all the time the musicianship is tight and full of lustre. You don't realise that this is a true gem without listening all the way through. Everything is so modest and subtle that it needs to be appreciated holistically, like looking down on a completed jigsaw. This is a quietly-styled masterpiece.

'Revelation' has a hard act to follow, but it has a pretty good stab at it. As on the version from The Book Of Kells, the star of this song is Hogg, who by now has gotten completely settled into her surroundings. Her delivery and diction are not quite as immaculate here as on the album, but even then she wipes the floor with her rivals (ever wondered why Enya never performs live?). Once again, Bainbridge has tweaked his guitar part so that the jaunty solo has been replaced by a screechy workout, but this is still a very good track.

After so many old classics, we come to something new. The title track is another instrumental, and would become the opener to Open Sky just under a year later. Like a lot of that album, this is hardly throughbred Iona, chiefly because (once again) van Essen goes a bit too mad a bit too often. It is not completely impotent, with Donockley's pipes carrying things along nicely. But the riffs are a lot less agreeable than on previous recordings, and by the end they begin to try your patience.

Thankfully, we end on the great Iona closer, 'Beyond These Shores'. This is longer than the album version by nearly 2 minutes, largely because of the long violin opening and the extended (and deserved) applause at the end. Nevertheless, this remains one of the band's all-time great compositions. For a start, it is perfectly suited to Hogg's range and delivery, allowing her to push herself in the name of passion without any sign of strain or struggle. The instruments are more restrained, with Bainbridge handling the piano like an old master while the violins hum near-silently in the background. The lyrics are pretty damn good too. You reach the end, as the cellos and keyboards mingle with the clapping, and you are left completely fulfilled.

Making a good live album is difficult. Making a good prog live album is even more so. Making a good prog live album with orchestral accompaniment is well-nigh impossible, as so often the music is overshadowed by the grandeur and pretention surrounding big bands. The most immediate example is Procol Harum's Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972); all that could have been extracted from a few half-decent songs is ruined by the bloated, stuffy nature of the arrangements (see my review of Procol Harum - The Collection (1985, #67)). With Woven Cord, however, Iona have cracked it. For the most part the orchestra is there to bring out and add to the most emotional parts of songs, rather than just padding out the mix. That said, the best moments are when the band is trying to be as restrained as possible; there is no noodling or shredding of which to speak, but van Essen is not always economical on the drums, too often sounding like a loose cannon. Overall though, you get the sense that Iona did not do this because they had the money, or the egos. They did this because they knew what full orchestration could bring to their work, and the result - for the most part - is profound.

3.91 out of 5

No comments: