If Edwin Arlington Robinson's Miniver Cheevy, who "loved the days of old / When swords were bright and steeds were prancing," could have loved a contemporary band, it would have been Iona. As the title of the group's latest album, the two-disc Another Realm (Open Sky), implies, Iona not only celebrates but also seems to come from another place and time.
In reality, Iona was formed in the U.K. in the late 1980s by the Irish singer Joanne Hogg, the British keyboardist-guitarist Dave Bainbridge, and several other musicians whom they've since replaced. Iona came to the attention of American audiences in the 1990s when the Christian label ForeFront gave them a domestic push.
As might be expected, fans pegged the band as a CCM act. Over the years they also labeled the band "Celtic" and "progressive rock."
Actually, Iona is little of all three-and a lot of something else for which there is as yet no name. Its main subject is Christ, but, drums and electric guitars notwithstanding, there's little that's "contemporary" about its sound. That sound has unmistakably Celtic elements, but the Christocentric lyrics make imagining it as a soundtrack accompanying the festivals of Druids or their latter-day admirers difficult. And although songs such as Another Realm's "An Atmosphere of Miracles" (15:35), "White Horse" (11:09), and "Let Your Glory Fall" (7:25) unfold at a progressive-rock pace, they do so without the virtuosity for virtuosity's sake for which that genre has become notorious. Iona's virtuosity serves a clear purpose.
About that virtuosity: It is said that a man "plays" an instrument. But, owing in part to the ruthless economic apparatus erected upon talented musicians, it is usually the case nowadays that the instrument plays the man. The inherent limitations of guitars, keyboards, drums, and even voices have come to rein in human imagination rather than to serve as the reins by which an imaginative musician may saddle a steed, brandish a sword, and charge toward something besides the mere turning of a profit. A windmill would make a worthier target than a Grammy.
But in Iona the sense of play survives. No matter how much labor may have gone into the composing and recording, what comes through in the end is exhilaration. Hogg's magnificent singing has a lot to do with this, but so does the nearly omnipresent swirl of tin whistles and uillean pipes, instruments especially well-suited to suggesting extravagant quests in general and, as Iona continues to demonstrate, the quest for the Holy Grail in particular.
For the most part, the new solo album by the ex-Newsboy Peter Furler, On Fire (Sparrow), with its rousing pop hooks and electronically cushioned sheen, aims at something quite un-Iona-like. And, catchy though his music is, Furler's aim would feel truer if he occasionally shot wide of the mark-if he didn't, for instance, resort on occasion to Auto-Tune, settle for a poetically deficient sub--King James rendering of the 23rd Psalm ("Psalm 23"), or exude so much sunny optimism about the Christian experience. Longtime inhabitants of the dark night of the soul will have to wear shades as they search in vain for any sign of the "fear and trembling" that's supposed to accompany salvation. At least once, however, in "Glory to the King," Furler's vision rivals Iona's for celestial clarity. An arrival-in-heaven anthem sung from the second-person point of view to a believer who has just shuffled off his mortal coil, it pulls off the alchemical trick of transmuting Contemporary Hit Radio's baser elements into a gold worthy of lining heaven's airwaves if not necessarily paving its streets.