Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #28: Beyond These Shores (1993)

Celtic band Iona make their third and final appearance with Beyond These Shores, a concept album of sorts based loosely on the transatlantic voyage of St. Brendan.
Neither of Iona's first two releases - Iona (1990) and The Book Of Kells (1992, #46), had made much impact commercially, and the critics had been largely indifferent. This lack of sales and acclaim prompted the departure of founder member David Fitzgerald, who left at the end of 1992 to pursue a degree in music. His place was filled by saxophonist Mike Haughton, one of a plethora of visiting musicians who would take part on the recording of the third album. Following the tour to support The Book Of Kells, Robert Fripp, of King Crimson fame, became interested in the band, and brought his trademark 'Frippertronic' production and guitar work into the mix. With the live circuit still very much the band's lifeblood, Iona needed to produce something which would satisfy their fans while teasing the critics.

Teasing is the word, actually. 'Prayer On The Mountain' begins with some intriguing, new age-y bells and rainstick. Amidst this menagerie of perusable percussion comes Troy Donockley's ever-splendid flute playing. Just as on 'Lindisfarne' from Journey Into The Morn (1996), this piece is hardly in-your-face: it slowly rises from the ground which bears it, gradually blooming into a sweet and fitting overture (see my review of Woven Cord (1999, #35). Being only 2:53 long it doesn't have as long as 'Lindisfarne' to make an impression, but no time is wasted here and the result is great.

From here we launch straight into 'Treasure', and already we see a more commercial, straightforward Iona. The flutes and bodhrán may still be there, we are still dealing with a celtic band. But the lyrics are more direct and straightforwardly Christian, paraphrasing from Matthew 6 throughout. Look at the first verse:

Consider the flowers of the field
And the beauty
More lovely then even the clothes of a king
Consider the birds of the air
Flying high, flying free
You are precious to me

What is more, this song incorporates conventional rock beats on the drums (Terl Bryant), and Dave Bainbridge's guitar work is more grounded and rocky than his usual swirling majesty. Don't think, however, this is Iona selling out. This is a very, very good song, retaining all the qualities of Iona's most conceptual and beautiful work while being a lot easier on the casual listener. It's really the best of both worlds, particularly since Bainbridge fans get a carefully placed acoustic solo halfway through.

Back to concepts of sorts now, and 'Brendan's Voyage (Navigatio)'. As on the first track, there are plenty of unusual noises which create a pleasant texture. But then just as you have got comfortable, Bainbridge lurches forward and ruins it with a guitar part straight out of an ageing 80s metal band. All the carefully crafted euphoria is lost, and no matter how hard Joanne Hogg tries she cannot rescue this song. The lyrics don't help her in this, but she is also overpowered by the drums, as she would be on later Iona records like The Circling Hour (2006).

'Edge Of The World' is much more like it. The melody is given time to emerge, emerging slowly this time backed by graceful, jazz-inspired piano and bass from Nick Beggs. Hogg seems much more at home, not having to fight the band for dominion. And the vocals suit her voice a lot better. Having made an unsung appearance on 'Treasure', Haughton shines here on both saxophone and whistle. This may be more down-tempo, but it is this kind of graceful, ethereal and timelessly elegant style which have always suited Iona best.

'Today' is a return to pop, of sorts. The rhythms are more staccato, the tempo is quicker, the lyrics are driven by hooks rather than imagery and atmosphere. Which is a shame really, because without these this could have been a good song. With these things in place - at least, the first two - the result comes across as compromised and half-arsed. It feels like a bog-standard worship band, with pedestrian guitar chords; the only thing that seperates it is the overactive percussion. This is not what we have come to expect of Iona.

Neither, for that matter, is 'View From The Islands'. The problem with this is chiefly its length; at 2:30 it's the shortest on the album, but it's hardly a punchy motown number. On the contrary, it's a Bainbridge acoustic workout, and a below-par one at that. Virtually nothing tumbles out of his guitar which will sustain your interests, and then Bainbridge throws in Haughton's flutes with the same riff as 'Prayer On The Mountain' in a vain attempt to rescue it.

But be patient, for with 'Bird Of Heaven' it's clear the band have listened. For starters, it's the longest track here, at 9:12, so there is no danger of being short-changed. Backed by graceful keyboard chords, Haughton begins the piece with a saxophone solo to die for; his soulful, jazzy playing transports you to an empty street in the middle of the night, and you are walking down it with only the lamps to guide you. Soon the walk become a joyful jog as the band lock down for one of their best instrumentals. Everything is tight, measured and yet so elegant - Bainbridge's guitar wails where before he could only make it shriek, at times coming close to the brooding sound Steve Hackett achieved on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974). And unlike his successor, Frank van Essen, Bryant manages both power and economy on the drums. When we do get to the lyrics, they are a timely reminder of the dangers of locking God in religion to suit our needs. This is much, much more like it.

Moving on to 'Murlough Bay', we find Hogg really getting into her stride. No other female singer is so well suited to these lyrics: she sings the line And here at last I'm on my own with you in a voice so pure that it could be used to tune an orchestra, but with so much feeling and emotion that no fancy effects, not even the echo Bainbridge has added, are necessary to lift her performance. And when she is required to grace the highest registers, she does not flinch or falter, serving up another wonderful effort.

'Burning Like Fire' returns to the more commercial, straight-ahead sound that we saw on 'Treasure' and would later see on Journey Into The Morn. The lyrics are simpler, especially when it comes to the chorus, but once again this is achieved without compromising their unique sound. Bainbridge's guitar is still yearning and Bryant's drumming still thundery. And in the quieter sections, where the drums go all jazzy, Haughton is allowed to flourish again.

'Adrift' is another instrumental, the longest such piece on the album. It's a very textual piece, relying on sweet, high-register piano laid over the softly humming keyboard backdrops. At its heart, this is a chill-out piece, nearly 4 minutes of music designed to completely soothe you. But unlike artists like Eddi Reader, who can chill you out to the point of making you fall asleep, this manages to make you relaxed while constantly sustaining your interests. The changes are not brusque and rapid enough to 'wake' you, but you are never allowed to slip away into sleep.

We now come to 'Beachy Head', which is, quite simply, the greatest song ever written. There is so much which makes this so majestic and magical. For starters, it's a song about suicide which actually lifts your spirits; in this aspect it is almost certainly unique. The band have played tightly before, but here the links between them are almost telepathic; each member, each instrument, knows what the others will do next and knows exactly when to come in and what to do. From the flute's duet with piano at the start to the soaring sax at the end, there is not a single passage which is superfluous or out of place. Bainbridge is astounding - his keyboards are graceful and sweet, while his guitar work burbles with brio. The riff created on the flute is fundamentally inspired, being quirky and ethereal at the same time. Hogg is on the best form of her career, injecting this with so much passion and always hitting the exact notes at the exact right moment. Bryant's drumming is understated, but brilliant - there is nothing too ornate or fancy, just good solid flicks of the sticks. And to cap it all, Bainbridge as producer has captured every sound in perfect harmony, so you can hear in total clarity every single note. This song is above and beyond everything that this band have created before or since. It is just - perfection.

'Machrie Moor' has a huge act to follow, but makes a decent effort of it. It does what it can to follow 'Beachy Head', taking the tempo right down while sustaining that sweetness, that feeling of great pleasure which you get from hearing Iona. The instruments are quieter and more modest; Bainbridge may have the largest part on acoustic, but he is hardly leading from the front. Instead he anchors the piece, allowing Frank van Essen's violins and Donockley's pipes to do their thing, and do it well.

'Healing' will start off as a difficult track to like for some people. It is a more standard piece, with simpler riffs and an even simpler chorus. Simplicity is not in itself a bad thing, but for a band like Iona who create beauty through intricacy, it can be seen as laziness. Hogg is struggling too, butchering the opening line (You've returned like some unsung her-o-oh threatens to throw the whole thing off course). But given time and patience, you will find this as pleasing as most of the other stuff on here. It is not lazy or cheesy, it is simply not what you would normally expect from Iona, at least on the basis of the rest of this album.

'Brendan's Return' is an instrumental reprise of the third track, with almost the same running time. But strangely, this is better than the first one. For a start, the unusual textures used to set the scene have been significantly pared back, so there is less chance of the piece dragging. Then the 80s guitar has been toned down and and made great by the addition of saxophone on harmony part, again adding a jazzy feel. Bryant is allowed a little more room to work his magic, chiefly because there are now no vocals for him to drown out.

We close this great album with the title track, a track which would become the great closer for Iona's live shows. Emerging out of the silence, Hogg returns to form with a set of lyrics and notes bespoke for her range and approach to singing. So while she sings like a siren on the shoreline, the rest of the band are there to paint the canvass surrounding her, with light, subtle touches and fitting riffs. It's a beautiful piece, one of the best tracks on here by a long way (though not as good as 'Beachy Head'). The lyrics pour over the lines like liquid spilling over a floor; they go their own, unique way and gradually fill the sound up. What a great way to finish.

Iona have always been a band to do things their own way, whether live or on record. They have never been afraid to push the boundaries, to explore the limits of what is considered 'Christian rock' and come up with something profoundly different from the cheesy Delirious? norm. Beyond These Shores is the climax of that experimentation. Previous works, like The Book Of Kells, were beautiful and well-written in their own right, but compared to this they sound like a band still finding itself. And later works, including their most recent release, have seen the band either straying too close to the mainstream or the opposite, disappearing into the dark void of showing off, prog-style. This is the only album where everything comes together at the right time and in just the right quantity. It's still flawed, but it retains a certain magic and spirit even at its most disappointing moments. Where many Christian records are off-putting and old hat, this is inviting, intriguing - and always rewarding.

3.93 out of 5

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