Being a progressive music fan for about 30 years (holy cow, has it been that long? LOL), I initially baulked at listening to Iona because of preconceived notions- thinking that the band trended towards the old label of `new age.' How could I be so wrong. One of the best thing about the Internet is to learn and discover hidden bands that should have a wider audience. Iona continues to put out consistently high quality compositions and recordings; the rest of the non-prog/folk world should wake up and take notice. But wait, upon discovering their new CD arriving in the mail, I wondered- could they keep up their streak of amazing music? Luckily the answer is a resounding yes! Though not a huge departure from past releases, there are some very neat changes; The Circling Hour is the most `progressive,' recording Iona has created, which gives them a fresh take on their already tried and true style. It is clear that this band does not simply put out product, it is a lovingly created tapestry of sounds, visions and emotions.
Highlights are the amazingly angelic vocalizings of Joanne Hogg. Her voice is simply stunning... a perfect accompaniment to the emotional cadence of the group. This is the album that drummer Frank Van Essen shines, and the recording showcases a greater emphasis on rhythm and percussion while keeping the drums fresh. The rest of the band is simply top-notch and blend perfectly together forming a rainbow of music instead of individual hues. Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockly provide pipes, keys and guitars that are the heartbeat of the band's emotion. The guitar even has the few spotlight moments that even rock!
As for production, the album is breathtaking, a staple of what you expect from an Iona release. The bass is mixed up, which goes with the more progressive angle of the band. The tone is uplifting without preaching or trending into Jon Anderson territory.
My favorite song is Wind Off the Lake. This is a 10 + minute opus, yet still remains personal and incorporates Celtic, prog rock, ambience and folk in one meld without sounding disjointed or contrived. You can tell the compositions and direction from The Circling Hour have a greater maturity as well as sophistication. On Fragment of a Fiery Sun, Joanne's voice reminds me a bit like a solemn Kate Bush... blending with ethereal ambience. The song is pure magic. The album's first track- Empyrean Dawn is another highlight. Simply put, this album has no fillers.
So what about negatives? Nothing to gripe about unless we look at the cover art and liner notes. The album art is boring and fails to convey the beauty contained on the disc (though I did like the moon image on the disc), within this album, and the lyrics in the nicely conceived CD booklet are very difficult to read.
What would I like to hear from the band on their next recording? I would love Iona to take another step forward on their musical journey, perhaps implement medieval, perhaps baroque sounds, which would be a perfect match for the band's compositions. Maybe showcasing a lighter side (sense of humor), as Steve Hackett occasionally does. But those are just my personal thoughts.
I believe this is Iona's best recording to date, bar none. I would love to see the same progression in their next album, which I await with baited breath. If you have not already discovered Iona, go to your local musical shop or Internet prog shop, check them out and buy this album. Don't forget to check out their live DVD concert. If you like melodic prog and Celtic folk, you will not be disappointed. This album is highly recommended. The Circling Hour is a rare masterpiece!