Artist Exploration

Iona: Celtic Progressive Rock

Iona: Celtic Progressive Rock
Image Credit: Tim Ostendorf

One of my favorite trends in music, was the fascination with Irish music in the 90s. A few examples – the movie Titanic featured a soundtrack flooded with celtic overtones – including a tin whistle solo on “My Heart Will Go On.” Bridged Boden released the album “Must Go On,” a mixture of Irish folk and electronica. Clannad – despite their sister Enya’s departure, could not have been hotter. And of course – we all remember Riverdance. I loved it all. I even had a few tin whistles I tried to play from time to time (I was terrible). Out of all of all the Irish influences in music – the one I loved the most was the celtic progressive rock band Iona.

Iona released their self-titled album in 1990 and went on to release six more studio albums and four live albums before finally disbanding in the mid 2010s. Iona’s sound was a mixture of traditional Irish folk instruments and vocals, along with more traditional rock instruments. Their music compositions often time followed the same structures as progressive rock. I could talk till I’m blue in the face about this amazing band – but without hearing their songs, you just won’t experience the amazing sounds that were Iona.

Flight Of the Wild Goose (1990)

We’ll start this exploration with an inststrumental. Flight of the Wild Goose uses electric guitars to guide us on a path of adventure. Alongside a steady drum cadence, and through different rhythms, melodies, codas, and tempo changes, we arrive at the destination. What’s there? A slow, restful saxophone, which serves as a watering hole for a weary flight. Oh – but we find out that’s just a rest stop! Energized with the saxophone, the flight continues alongside the aforementioned guitars and drums.

I have a special moment attached to this song – my first airline flight. It was a clear day in June, and I flew from Portland to LA. Somewhere over southern Oregon, Flight of the Wild Goose played on my headphones. I looked out the window and see Crater Lake. A few minutes later, before the song ended, I saw Mt Shasta. Both sites were breathtaking from the air – and Flight of the Wild Goose added even more to these majestic views.

Dancing on the Wall (1990)

Iona’s genre, Celtic progressive rock, doesn’t quite show itself in Dancing on the Wall. The song lacks Iona’s Celtic influences altogether, and while the song holds some progressive elements, the song structure seems a bit more orthodox. Oh, but that energy! That hope! These are the qualities that make Dancing on the Wall a great song.

Singer Joanna Hogg sings a lower part On Dancing on the Wall than she usually sings. In any other song, this would give a ghostly feeling. With Dancing on the Wall however, Hogg’s deeper, lower pitched voice drives the song’s energy. Alongside a steady uptempo and a piano part that just won’t quit, I can’t help but tap my foot – or even dance!

The lyrics themselves talk about hope. The title line, Dancing on the Wall, refer to a fundamental change – the ability to do the impossible (like defying gravity by dancing on the wall). Lines such as “I am part of something that is going to sway things for the better” support this hope. This is a song to pump up your soul. This is something to energize your spirit.

Revelation (1992)

If any song, in the history of progressive music, utilizes the genre’s ability to build as the song plays, it’s Revelation. Revelation is a cry for God to show themselves. The wait is long, and seasons change – but so does the hunger. This hunger, in Revelation, reveals itself litle by little as the song builds and builds.

We start the song with a simple acoustic guitar, a flute, and the lead vocals. As the song moves into the first chorus, we get a sound of thundering drums and a clacking percussion. With verse two, we have a full band – bass, keys, electric guitar, as well as the drums and vocals. Onward – we move forward….and still the sound amplifies. A guitar solo after the second chorus, a sax at the end….and eventually just a wall of sound. This progression shows a simple prayer turn into a cry of the heart.

Chi-Rho (1992)

In Chi-Rho, Iona uses their Celtic progressive rock sound in a different way than in Revelation. Chi-Rho refers to the Greek Letters often used as a symbol of Christ. The song itself is worship song talking about the simple, but also the complex. Chi-Rho uses progression to demonstrate the great and the small aspects of creation.

The song starts out with a couple acoustic guitars strumming simply, along with Hogg’s vocals. As Hogg sings, we hear about the simpleness of green plants and the tree of life. Iona steps up their instrumentation in the second verse as Hogg sings about gold thrones, “Colourless whites,” and the mysteries of the universe. Through the chorus, Iona ties all these things together – as Hoggs sings “By Him all things were created.” The simple and the complex (represented by a simple sound) – the complex and grand (represented by a more complex sound) – they’re all because of Chi-Rho.

Kells (1992)

The Book of Kells, an elaborately illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels, serves as the inspiration for Iona’s second album. Kells, the last song on the album, celebrates this great work of art, and the message it stands for.

Kells leads with an Irish tin whistle and almost military sounding drums. As the song progresses we get, of course, a bevy of instruments. We also get lines such as “The word is a sword that pierces the heart / The truth is a light that cuts through the dark” sung with these same drums and again, a wall of sound. Kells celebrates the word and the word’s impact on the world.

Treasure (1993)

Treasure holds a special place in my heart – as it’s the first song by Iona I heard. Still – the song seems a quandry to me. The lyrics, and the instrumentation don’t seem to mix.

Treasure’s lyrics paraphrase Matthew 6:21 (where your treasure is, there is your heart). To convey this message – Iona uses less progression than most of their songs. Instead of building, they keep up a huge amount instrumentation from the start to the finish of the song. This wall of sound almost sounds joyful. The his is what confuses me the most. The statement – “Where your treasure is, there is your heart” sounds more like a proverb than a statement of joy.

Then again – some interpret Matthew 6:21 as a statement of God’s love for humanity. The verse, and the song, show us that the Father’s heart is with us, so he gives us his treasure – and that’s something to be joyful about!

Today (1993)

At the beginning of Today, we hear a traditional Irish drum beat (possibly played with a Bodhrán) coupled with Hogg’s vocals singing a melody that sound very traditional. In verse two, an electric piano joins the song. With the chorus, Iona brings us a layer of other instruments, both rock and Irish folk (tin whistles, guitars, bass, full drums, a fiddle, and possibly a squeezebox).

The progression in Today gives us an almost time traveling feeling. We’re in today in every part of the song, but as the instruments progress, so do our lives. And yet – as Iona is decidedly a CCM band, they make the point that one thing stays the same despite the progressions of today – In you (God), I live and breathe.

Brenda’s Voyage / Brendan’s Return (1993)

Iona’s third album, “Beyond These Shores” was a concept album. The album focuses on the journey of St. Brendan, an Irish monk who quite possibly found North America, though some say he actually found Iceland, or some unknown island to the south of Europe. Regardless – the journey was quite an amazing feat – especially considering the voyage happened in the 400s!

Brendan’s Voyage and Brendan’s Return focus on the beginning and the end of this journey. Both songs have the same (amazing) guitar solo, but the solos signify different things in each song. In “Voyage,” the guitar represents fear and excitement and adventure – in “Return,” it represents pride and the memory of the adventures….but mostly a thankfulness for a safe return,

The two songs serve as bookends to the album, and show us the passing of time, and how one grows wiser over the years.

Everything Changes (1996)

Every band worth their salt needs to step out of the comforts of their genre from time to time. Everything Changes is one of Iona’s attempts to do exactly that. Instead of a Celtic progressive rock song, Everything Changes is more akin to a 90s trance music.

Everything Changes both relaxes me and piques my curiosity. I could probably listen to Everything Changes on repeat ten times and not get bored. The song starts with a bit of Gaelic mouth music, a steady trickle of synthesizers melodies, and a simple backing drum beat. As the song progresses – not much changes. There are some actual lyrics, but the music itself sounds stripped down and bare. Again – perfect for relaxation.

The most interesting thing about Everything Changes though, the song’s music lends itself to the song title nicely. The song is about change, how nothing stays the same. By using a different genre than what they usually use, Iona demonstrates that yes – everything does indeed change. Including their own sound.

Bi-Si I Mo Shuil Parts 1 and 2 (1996)

The album “Journey Into the Morn” sandwiches itself between two versions of the same song. There’s the slow, more traditional version at the beginning, then there’s Bi-Si I Mo Shuil Part 2, which has a more modern sound.

The lyrics are a gaelic translation of the hymn “Be Thou My Vision,” which might be why Iona offers us two versions. The first – looking at their roots, the past, their traditions. The second version – a more contemporary sound with a steady beat and electric instruments.

An unofficial “part three” happens at the end of part two. The tempo, and even the melody changes. A tin whistle, starts playing, soon to be joined by a host of other instruments, layered upon each other. Fiddles, guitars, keys, and several folk instruments which I’ll be honest, I just can’t identify. This “part three” sounds outright adventurous. As though to signify the future, and all the journeys (into the morn and beyond).

Wave after Wave (2000)

The opening of Wave after Wave greets us with some seriously beautiful sounds. A violin, some light guitar plucking. Verse one starts with Hogg singing both quietly and softly. It isn’t long until the song picks up – and progresses into a stormy “sea” of instruments, both traditional and contemporary.

Through the song – there’s several key changes, several tempo changes, and several changes in intensity. That’s kind of the point after all. Each change to the song is another wave. Wave after wave rolls on….the journey continues.

By the way, Regular readers might recognize this song ast the title track of my ocean themed playlist.

Wind of the Lake (2006)

While Iona certainly loves to experiment with other genres, they are, primarily, a Celtic progressive rock band. Iona reminds us of this fact in the song “Wind of the Lake.”

The song begins with an ethereal electric piano. A male vocalist saying “This Time I see it,” which launches us into an Irish pipe solo, played fastly and loudly. Throughout the song’s 11 minute runtime(!), we get so many transitions and progressions that we can’t keep track of every single one. We have electric guitar solos, traditional Irish instruments, vocals singing on top of eachother, and so many other parts. It’s a mess – but in a good way.

Wind of the Lake reminds me of why I fell in love with Iona’s music to begin with. There’s a lot of traditional sounds, a lot of Irish folk sounds, rock sounds, et cetera. With Wind of the Lake, and with Iona, you just don’t ever know what you’re going to get next. It’s best to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I want more Celtic Progressive Rock.

Iona has been on hiatus for quite awhile. Sometimes their music is hard to find (especially on streaming services). Even when they were together, I never did get to see them live. I don’t know that they ever came to my city, or even the West coast of the US. In later years they mostly toured in Europe.

The various members are out doing their own things. Singer Joanne Hogg has a decent solo gig going on, and her songs are pretty good – but they’re not Iona. Yes – everything changes, but if the various members of Iona happen to read this – 1) I love your music, and 2) I would seriously love it if you got back together. Even if you don’t, thank you for all your music. Your Celtic progressive rock sound is truly life changing.


To hear more of Iona’s music, visit their website and bandcamp pages.