(courtesy of Forefront Records)
Only time will tell just how important a year 1996 was for Iona. The band's superb fourth album, Journey Into the Morn, was released to such critical acclaim that it was listed among the top five folk albums in Q magazine's Year End Review and even more importantly gained a berth in their Top 50 Albums of the Year list where they were described as "an exhilarating contemporary folk act, able to press traditional instruments convincingly into service alongside their electric counterparts." Best known for their live performances, Iona played a series of concerts at the end of 1996 that were recorded for this, their first live album.
Running almost two hours, Heaven's Bright Sun is a musical tour de force. The band have taken tracks from each of their four studio albums and breathed new life into them. There's a new energy in the music. The sound is at one and the same time more sinuous and more sinewy; more fluid yet more powerful. To quote Q again, "rarely has the Celtic thing been given so many welcome twists, or played with such conviction." The current lineup of Dave Bainbridge (guitars/keyboards), Joanne Hogg (vocals/acoustic guitar/keyboards), Phil Barker (bass), Mike Haughton (saxophones/flutes/whistles), Troy Donockley (whistles/uillean pipes/guitars), and Terl Bryant (more percussion instruments than you could shake a rainstick at) blends superbly well. There is such a clarity to the sound that it is hard to believe it's not a studio recording.
Clearly, Heaven's Bright Sun is about glorifying God through the music and lyrics as the spoken introductions and on-stage conversations are kept to a minimum. Joanne describes her first visit to "The Island" (Lindisfarne) and recalls how she first heard her sister sing "I Will Give My Love An Apple"—one of the new songs on the album—at a school concert. The song is a traditional folk song and the Iona arrangement starts with Joanne's plaintive voice singing the beautiful melody. The other "new" track is a collection of "Reels"—"The Mountain Road/The Ivy Leaf/The Hunter's Purse/Rip the Callico/The Ivy Leaf (Reprise)"—which have long been concert favorites. If the musical dexterity of the rest of the album is something to wonder at, then the speed of some of these passages is almost beyond belief—especially the duets and trios between Bainbridge, Donockley, and Haughton.
Indeed, the lure of Iona's musical craftmanship often allows the band to share the message of Christ with those who need to hear it most. According to Dave Bainbridge, "God is using our band to speak to many people who wouldn't go near a church—particularly those who are into Celtic or progressive or even New Age music. It is my hope that Iona can be a connection to an untapped harvest of unbelievers who need to know about Jesus, the Man of Truth and Light."
The album closes with a stunning 14-minute version of "When I Survey." Dave Bainbridge's swirling keyboards and Troy Donockley's atmospheric E-bow guitar form the framework for the song with Joanne delivering the veres in her typically haunting fashion. Terl Bryant colors the shifting moods with a selection of percussion which leads to a finale in which Bainbridge takes over the guitar duties to deliver an Edge-like solo. This one track encapsulates what Iona represent—a complete commitment to musicianship and to worship with no holds barred.
"I really believe that God is going to touch many lives with this album," continues Bainbridge. "And as people's listening experience culminates in "When I Survey," which points directly to our source of inspiration and reason for being, their hearts will be broken and a revelation of God's presence here and now will be revealed to them." The album's title is quoted from that much loved ancient Celtic hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," and the music within Heaven's Bright Sun certainly has the power, to quote the hymn again, to "reach heaven's joys."