Dave Bainbridge – Celestial Fire

Dave Bainbridge, Celestial FireNever  normally one to use a straight 4/4 when a 13/12 rhythm will do, Bainbridge’s musical spirit flies free – and more directly –  on this solo project.

It’s prog with one ear to seminal artists and the other listening for the music of heaven.

4.5 Stars

10 Tracks / 74 minutes

www. iona.uk.com, http://www.davebainbridge.com

With all the brakes off, this is probably Dave Bainbridge’s best solo work – and stronger than most of his duet collaborations as well. As it begins (the short “Heavenfield”), this could be Iona, not least because Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes feature and Bainbridge’s keys are only supported by subtle percussion and Sally Minnear’s equally restrained vocals. The same quartet continues augmented for the title track, but here it has the feel of an Iona epic with added proggishness. If only Iona albums featured such powerful, single-minded synth breaks as he plays late in “Celestial Fire”…

When he started this project, Bainbridge said that he was playing up his early inspirations, such as Mahavishnu Orchestra. They are easy to spot, even without the heads-up. Sometimes it seems that single lines get put in just to play tribute. Even by the second track there are several cameo Tony Banks keyboard effects, such as an organ bit that could have been lifted straight from Trespass; and both piano and organ in “Love Remains” is reminiscent of Keith Emerson.

But the overriding influence has to be Yes, both Relayer-era and later incarnations. It echoes in the sustained guitar lines, shouts from the arrangements, especially those Anderson-esque vocal structures, and flashes blindingly from Randy George’s Rickenbacker bass work.

By the third track (“See What I See”) Bainbridge soars on rockier, almost American, wings. Damian Wilson’s vocals help to make the sound more muscular and the whole song is more direct, whether the simple riff or the harmony-rich Asia-like chorus. It has the memorable lines that Iona is weaker on and again, George’s bass is on a stellar level. His playing enhances the riffs, but dances free-flowing in between them. Hearing how high he gets sometimes, he must have his left hand so far up the fret board that it is actually halfway up the lead.

The beauty of a solo work like this is the chance to bring in specific musicians for specific tracks. Five Iona members still appear here, but as well as George, we also get Sally Minnear (daughter of Gentle Giant’s Kerry Minnear); Threshold’s Damian Wilson (who has also featured in Les Miserables); Collin Leijenaar, who has worked with Neal Morse, and Wet Wet Wet’s Graeme Duffin. Yvonne Lyon shares lead vocal duties, but also helped to shape the lyrics for the collection, along with her husband and Bainbridge.

The lyrics have a powerful spiritual focus, a couple looking at the links between faith and music, such as the title track, inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Aslan singing creation into being, and the highly melodic and majestic “In the Moment” (another 15-minute track) inspired by an event triggered by Iona playing “Reels” in the late 1990s. It doesn’t have the Celtic feel of that track, but does feature a smooth, soaring guitar solo (and a bolted-on Focus/ELP organ solo).

Possibly the best track, “Love Remains” is a paraphrase of the famous love chapter in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Others pick up on God’s recreation and the glorious hope and freedom of faith:

“You see frustration, dreams locked inside I see a door, opening wide. More than the failure that tears can’t forget I see a future in place of regret.”

I struggle to find any weaknesses here. Yes, there could be a few extra hooks, but this is symphonic prog; hooks are not the point. Having played it many times (it just gets better) it keeps giving the impression that it will take many more listens to really get to know this album. It has so much packed into its 74 minutes, and no filler. He has managed to build on his influences, taking the right bits for the right songs, while avoiding that massive trap of prog solo work: self-indulgence.

dave bainbridge in studio   Never normally one to use a straight 4/4 when a 13/12 rhythm will do, Bainbridge takes a more direct approach here. This is a crowd-funded work and so plainly something more than some contractual obligation, but it still sounds more deeply felt than it has to. That he is impassioned about releasing this into the world blazes into the night sky like some Batman call.

Ok, I’ll confess: I even prefer this to Iona.

 (There should be an interview with Dave appearing on this site soon-ish)
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