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Honorary Collaborator
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.

Report this review (#217349)
Posted Friday, May 22, 2009 | Review Permalink

If The Clouds Scrapbook didn't convince you that you were listening to one of the great lost groups, then Watercolour Days should at least cause you pause for thought. The advance in technique and serious purpose between the two recordings is startling, and promised a great deal more, but sadly, this was the last Clouds album.

Watercolour Days begins with a whisper of snare drum, building to a crescendo that climaxes in a plaintive melodic lament. The song is almost a blueprint for the usual Clouds patterns of unexpected changes, moods that swing from the dramatic to the sensitive, musicianship that is forceful, yet sympathetic to the song. Outstanding piano and organ control proceedings, and David Palmer's strings are perfect.

Cold Sweat, with its crushing, dominating organ, and spiky vocals is another tour-de-force of performance. How many bands without a guitar could be this dominant? And don't say ELP, because it just won't wash. Emerson and Wakeman certainly don't lack technique, they exude it. But neither can present dynamic content as Ritchie does here.

Lighthouse evokes images of waves on the shore, a ship in the distance, lost in the fog, a veritable sound painting, atmospheric and haunting.

Long Time has gone almost unnoticed in reviews of this album, yet it is another clever song in disguise, a bluesy offering with Rock overtones, but invested with all the quality of a fine song.

Mind of a Child , with its gruff phased organ joining the clever melodic phrases seamlessly, keeps the album in a Rock vein, the sudden drop of volume and mood surprising us (even though we should by now expect no less from this group). Another surprise awaits us at the end with the wistful afterthought of the piano in a completely new key.

I Know better than You is a powerhouse of a track, the band tough and confident, the changes dramatic and dynamic, the organ and piano simultaneously playing a virtuoso double-handed riff changing chord to chord three times or more within the space of each beat in the bar. You have to slow down the track to fully appreciate what's happening here. The power of the whole band is impressive, and gives a hint of what the band must have been like in concert.

Leaving is almost a step back in time to the sixties and pop ballads, a reminder that song- writing is important to the band and Ritchie in particular. A fine flute and strings arrangement prettily decorates and perhaps covers some shaky moments in the playing and singing.. The band probably needed more time in the studio than was available. But it's a nice song nevertheless.

Get off my Farm sounds like the band were trying to get heavier, almost self-consciously. To some extent, it works, there is some grit sticking to the track, but it's difficult to overcome the rather weak idea behind the song, and the organ solo meanders without conviction, almost as an afterthought.

I am the Melody is, along with the two opening tracks, one of the finest moments on the album. The harpsichord, with its classical melody, spins its way through the flowing tune, deceptively simple in its conception, odd-beat bars fitting in as naturally as can be, the vocal cleverly using an accented tone to suggest the timeless quality of the piece, in perfect chime with the harpsichord and drum brushes, alternating with the authentic thudding beat of a true Rock band to produce a song and a track that is far from ordinary.

Watercolour Days has only in recent years been critically acclaimed, like the band itself, spending years in the wilderness. Sad though it is that this music never reached the peak it should have, the Clouds albums deserve their place in a pantheon of Rock's importance. 4 stars

Report this review (#294206)
Posted Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars Watercolour Days is a beautiful song and a worthy opening to an often poetic album. What a pity there is a patchiness in this work, rough edges not quite smoothed out, vocals just a little (and sometimes a lot) uninteresting or ordinary, for what is contained here is not ordinary at all. There is greatness at work here, but its potential remains unrealised, only hinting at all that could be, never quite reaching it. True, the choice of songs (or non-songs at times) is hit and miss, but the high points are worth waiting for; Cold Sweat, Lighthouse, Long Time, Mind Of A Child, I Am The Melody. I love the raw organ power of Cold Sweat, the pictorial scenes and sounds in Lighthouse, but for me it's a bookends of an album, the title track opening, the harpsichord of I Am The Melody bringing a finale tinged with a lingering feeling of déjà vu.

Perhaps it's linked to the fact that, although for me, the crucial Clouds recording is Scrapbook, I actually like this record more, yet it always leaves me feeling sad, as if I've lost something along the way but can't quite place where or when.

There's something timeless in this music that isn't quite finding expression. I wish there were more albums following on, to fill the questions, but there's only silence.

Report this review (#362453)
Posted Friday, December 24, 2010 | Review Permalink
3 stars The third and final album from Clouds.

Well, here in Europe, this was only their second album and the long overdue follow up to Scrapbook. Their second album, the missing link, was actually only released two months ago here in Europe as a part of the Up Above Our Heads box. But I regard Watercolour Days as their third album and leaves the nitty gritty to our forum/historians to sort out.

Clouds was a special band who influenced a lot of bands and persons. The Nice springs to mind. Watercolour Days though was both recorded and released some years after The Nice had taken up the baton from Clouds and is new territory for Clouds. Gone is the symphonic prog/jazz stuff from their second album Up Above Our Heads. Instead, we get some competent beat music. Yes, I mean beat as in 1960s mix of pop and rock. The kind of music The Beatles did. There are still plenty of symphonic prog here, but the emphasis has been made more on the good catchy melody than intricates arty rock. Hence; this album is a regression from the Up Above Our Heads album. It is a return to their debut album Scrapbook. I also note the 1960s sound Clouds still had on this album. Besides of their own instruments, Clouds has again drafted in some strings from a symphony orchestra. They are very much present here in addition to the Hammond organ played by Billy Ritchie. Clouds was also blessed with a great vocalist and a great rhythm section too. This created a very charming sound and one I would compare to a band like It's A Beautiful Day.

The songs on this album is all good, bordering to great. But in my view; they are too simplistic compared to their previous albums. But the Hammond organ is mostly always present and that is the big plus with this album. The best songs here are the title track, Lighthouse and I Am The Melody. The rest of the album is good too and filled with some great catchy tunes. The sound is also crystal clear and very probably the work of a remastering and a solid clean up done last year. I would though advice giving this album more than five listenings before making a judgement on it. It is truly a slow burner, this album.

In short, not the greatest albums around, but a very good album it is. It is also a very charming album I am very glad I own. Recommended, it is.

3.5 stars

Report this review (#388164)
Posted Friday, January 28, 2011 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars Art rock

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Clouds enjoyed increasing recognition of their talents on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately for them, this was a great time for music though, and other bands were securing far greater commercial success. One such band was Jethro Tull, who were also managed by Clouds manager Terry Ellis. Ellis became ever more committed to Tull, leaving Clouds twiddling there collective thumbs waiting for him to devote some time to them. It was therefore some 2 years after their "Up above our heads" release that this their third and final album was recorded.

By 1971, those who had discovered Clouds through their previous albums had probably assumed that the band had come and gone, so interest in "Watercolour days" was somewhat limited. In the US, the album at least attracted a handful of favourable reviews, but in the UK both the record company and the music press were united in their apathy.

"Watercolour days" sees the band refining the contrasting works of their UK début ("The Clouds Scrapbook") and their North America début ("Up above our Heads"), with proto-prog explorations standing alongside pop orchestrations. By this time of course, music, especially prog, had moved on at an astonishing pace. Such was the extent of the progress that in two short years, the band went from being ahead of their time to sounding rather antiquated.

There are certainly similarities here with the early work of Yes, whom Clouds pre-dated by some distance. The frantic"Cold sweat" has some fine organ playing supporting an adventurous arrangement. It seems reasonable to assume that a young Tony Banks of Genesis may well have heard tracks such as this when advancing his early style. There is also a fair hint of Emerson to be found too!

On the ballad side, "Lighthouse" is a natural development of the avenues explored on "Scrapbook" (the track). "Leaving" has all the mood of a Scott Walker classic, the sensitive orchestration sitting well alongside the drifting organ.

One of the best tracks is the protest song "Mind of a child", which has something of a John Lennon feel to it, both lyrically and in the echoed vocals. The title track also raises the bar considerably, its intense arrangement testing the band well. Band member Billy Ritchie says of the track that he would have preferred not to have sung on it as it was not in his key, but he does a fine job of it nonetheless.

Overall, there is a maturity to the package this time, with progressive elements being developed well. The lack of lead guitar is no great issue in the main, although some variation in the organ backing would have been good. Those in Europe who enjoyed "The Clouds Scrapbook", and those in North America who enjoyed "Up above our heads" should find this to be an interesting yet natural development.

Significantly, while the band were given almost total freedom while recording the album, history now records that at the behest of manager Terry Ellis a number of tracks were dropped unbeknown to the band. These tracks can now be found on the newly released "Up above our heads" compilation.

This would prove to be the band's final album, collective disillusionment setting in when it failed to find the recognition it deserved. Fortunately, having lain dormant for 40 years, the work of Clouds is now gaining some of the recognition it deserves.

Report this review (#399025)
Posted Saturday, February 12, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars A brave attempt to marry the opposing elements in the previous two records; pop adventurism with the needs of virtuoso musicianship. The constant battle between these two forms within the band makes interesting listening, at times one winning, the song emerging or the band imposing its identity, but always an uneasy marriage.

The tragic consequences are plain to hear. 1-2-3's originality was born of rewriting other people's songs, not their own, but the often-mentioned blueprint that other bands took from 1-2-3 was transformed in the hands of a band like Yes into what it should have been; the real marriage of musicians with their own musical compositions, perhaps reaching true fruition at last in King Crimson.

This is what Clouds couldn't achieve, despite Ritchie's songs being among the best of pop writing at the time. The band could not make that transition, and that's why they were ultimately left behind when their contemporaries moved into the new age. Ritchie, though probably the greatest Rock organist of them all, was also at least partly responsible, being unable or too slow to move into the era of synths and alternative keyboards, being left far behind in that sense by those who he had influenced in the first place like Emerson and Wakeman. As has been already pointed out, the textures on this album were already sounding dated in 1971. The towering impressive organ is still something of an anachronism for the 70s, a lingering almost nostalgic whiff of the sixties spilling over into the new decade. It's as if Ritchie has his head so down among his own meanderings, he hasn't noticed that the gears have changed and the open road ahead is now a motorway.

The title track is a glorious goodbye, the sheer cleverness of the arrangement, and the opening section wrapped around a gorgeous tune with typically-poetic lyrics hitting dead centre, though at times it's more like the Beatles or ELO than anything progressive. Every so often, something of this elusive and magnificent quality pushes its way through the wandering music, seemingly searching for coherence, finding itself somewhat in Long Time and I am the Melody in particular.

This unique and crucial band nevertheless remains lost somehow on its own bridge between the past and the future.

Report this review (#429004)
Posted Friday, April 8, 2011 | Review Permalink

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