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Clouds - Watercolour Days CD (album) cover




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3.89 | 33 ratings

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4 stars Clouded Vision

This overdue follow-up to Scrapbook suffers in many ways.

Don't get me wrong - the music is generally of an extremely high quality; The compositional ideas come as thick and fast as they ever did, and the band's hunger for success is almost tangible.

And that is also the weak point of this album, to me. It's like everyone is trying too hard, and really stretching themselves beyond their abilities.

Perversely, I'm all for this - this is how music progresses, and bands should hunger for musical success, because it keeps them on edge and pushing at their own creative envelopes. All too often, a band gets flabby and sits back on its laurels, churning out the same old stuff just to keep the cash coming in.

Here, Clouds are the opposite of this - they sound like a band who have entered the recording studio with brand new, largely ungigged pieces, simply bursting with creative ideas, but limited in the time they had to record them all.

The band were lucky enough to have found a great orchestral arranger in David Palmer - a Royal Academy of Music graduate in composition. David is now Dee Palmer, and worked closely with producer Terry Ellis at Chrysalis Records, and with stable mates Jethro Tull from This Was until 1980 and beyond. She has also released orchestrated interpretations of Genesis, Yes, Queen and the Beatles.

The orchestral arrangements are subtly present in the symphonic opener, Watercolour Days. When the song proper kicks in after 1:15, it is strongly reminiscent of The Beatles - with the vocals carrying a strong resemblance to McCartney's style. As with much of the material on Scrapbook, this song goes through a huge number of changes with all manner of stylistic influences being drawn upon.

The piece is rich in dynamic, and deserves as much volume as you can give it - the snare at the start is so quiet you can barely hear it. If you turn the volume up at this point, then leave it there, you'll get the full effect of this piece, as first the piano, then the bass, then the organ join in for a quite dazzling display of texture-building and joyous cacophony.

Such is the complexity of the piece, you can feel the band struggling to keep up with all the various musical segments, key, time signature and arrangement dynamic - and this performance may be off- putting to some.

Because people over use the word complex and complexity when talking about Prog, I'll give an idea of it in terms of structure; I counted 3 separate (but conjoined, flowing) sections in the intro, and an A-B- A-B-A-B-C structure to the first verse; A symphonic structure in miniature, in other words. The 3-part instrumental break immediately follows the first chorus, and the second verse/chorus structure has a different arrangement to the first. Yet the melody is so familiar and accessible that this quite outrageous complexity is quite hidden.

Cold Sweat follows, with a Wynder K Frogg style funky Hammond riff driven by some awesome kit work that makes me think of Carl Palmer. Pity the bass is out of tune - and the sudden Mozart interjection is a real Spinal Tap moment. It's a bit low in the mix too - really, this should have been delivered in your face to really underline the comedy moment as deliberate. As it is, it seems like the producer may have felt it a bit silly rather than comic, and tried to bury it a bit.

The piece as a whole is a lot of fun, though, mixing the Frogg with Keith Mansfield or possibly Alan Hawkshaw, but with more changes. This is leagues away from Vincent Crane of Atomic Rooster fame, to whom Ritchie is sometimes compared.

Lighthouse is a more laid-back number, and the feeling here is of continuation from Cold Sweat - the instrumental arrangement is the same, so the sound is somewhat homogenous. A strong Doors-meet-Meddle Pink Floyd flavour permeates the musical backing in Billy Ritchie's Manzarek-sweet semi-improv'd melody lines, and the vocals are still pure late Beatles.

Long Time Returns to a more rootsy style without losing any of the loose improvisation, and is another deceptively simple sounding song. A lot of the keyboard work reminds me of a more aggressive Mick Weaver, especially in the use of the more percussive sounds of the Hammond.

With a breathy, yet ecclesiastical sounding Hammond, Mind of A Child begins, sounding a little like Eye Level - the only hit for the Simon Park Orchestra in 1970. The similarity comes from the little descending triplet motif - but stops right there. This motif is played around with and expanded as the song develops in what would be a dramatic tour de force, were it not plagued with execution issues - particularly drum fills that don't quite mesh and lazy, simple bass lines.

This moves on into the somewhat pedantic I Know Better Than You, which doubles organ and keyboard - I'm guessing that Billy Ritchie did this live, and it is precisely this difficult technique that makes the overall piece sound so pedantic because the two parts are rhythmically identical most of the way through.

That aside, this is a powerful piece, with classical leanings, powerful melody, many, many changes, and a ballistic percussion section from composer Harry Hughes. The bass is very low in the mix here, otherwise this piece would easily crush the most powerful offering from ELP. Watch out for the blasting change at 2:45(ish).

Leavin' is a Moody Blues / Beatles styled ballad with a haunting flute playing the tag line from Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, paying homage to the innovators who paved the way for Prog. This is by far the simplest song on the album, and segues straight into the contrasting Get Off My Farm, which is another intense blast with attitude and aggression, with the compositional subtlety of Blue Cheer - from ballad to heavy metal you might say.

Rounding off the album is another contrast to complete this rollercoaster ride, and my favourite of all Clouds' compositions.

I Am The Melody is packed with key, time and style changes, yet has the most demonically infectious tune, befitting the title perfectly. Billy Ritchie kicks things off with a harpsichord evoking Bach in its downward cascading sequences. D. Palmer's sensitive and subtle orchestration complements this tune so well that it's seamless - the harpsichord is joined by a flute for the first vocal verse. The melody appears simple and catchy, yet winds around non-repetitively through both of its 2-part phrases, each calling then answering with classical precision and rock and roll naturalness.

When the instrumental bridge begins, Ritchie improvising around the Bach-like theme on the harpsichord over a jazz drum and bass line, trying really hard to fuse the two genres, reminding me of Jacques Loussier and others before him (including Django and Stephane Grapelli) - and doing a better job of it than Ekseption or Renaissance. The use of the harpsichord only serves to make the music more spine chilling, and when the song returns it has added impact. Sadly, it's all over much too soon.

It's impossible not to notice - the entire album suffers - and few places more than the ending to I Am The Melody - from synchronisation, timing, the odd tuning issues, and somewhat dull bass lines. Perhaps, at this point in their career, the bass player had lost confidence in the band? It's far from being a perfect product.

These performance issues are countered by the overall composition and the sheer strength of the melodies, however. This was a band hungry to push the envelope musically, whilst still creating music with wide appeal. This is a very difficult balance to achieve, and I get the feeling that Clouds, particularly Ritchie, preferred to sacrifice as much as possible to their instinctive musical visions rather than compromise.

While this is a hugely commendable approach, sadly it does not make for a very marketable product.

And that is one of the things I like best about Prog music - when you stumble across a no-compromise band like Clouds, you realise that you really haven't heard it all.

Watercolour Days is a flawed diamond, and well worth a punt. Like Scrapbook, it reveals more with every listen.

Certif1ed | 4/5 |


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