Cloud Atlas – Beyond the Vale (2015)

CloudAtlas_BeyondVale4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although typically labeled on most music-related websites as purely a Progressive Rock band, Cloud Atlas truly is so much more. To me, this U.K. band is actually a solid Hard Rock act with strong AOR leanings (especially when it comes to the vocals), along with a healthy dose of Prog-Rock regarding many of the arrangements and mood shifts, making the songs truly accessible to a wider listening audience. Vocals are handled to perfection by Heidi Widdop, a gal with one hell of a killer voice, who is backed by a band of musicians all quite adept at their instruments.

Generally speaking, the music on this debut album is a tad lighter than what I was expecting, but that was a rather pleasant surprise. There are no shrieking guitars to clog the brain cells, no thundering rhythm sections to jar the nerves, or any off-the-wall keyboards to distract from the all-important vocals and melody lines.

And those vocals and melody lines are the highlight of this album.

For instance, “Searchlight” begins the album with a long atmospheric opening that leads into a mildly rocking track with an almost dreamy air, reminding me a bit of Lana Lane’s music. But once Heidi makes her presence known, I instantly thought of singers such as Melissa Etheridge or Sass Jordan, only a less-gruff version. Indeed, Heidi sings in a mid-level range for the most part, her voice at times smooth and deliciously breathy, and at other times, emotionally charged, beefy, and passionate with just the perfect hint of rasp to give it edge.

One of my favorite tracks, “Siren Song,” follows, opening with the gentle sound of water lapping along a dark and foggy shoreline and, what I can only presume, is the sound of a lonely siren pleading for a potential lover to find her. A laid-back acoustic guitar and a brief keyboard melody leads in to Heidi hauntingly delivering the line, “Hear me, I will draw you to sea,” her hypnotic melody floating over the instruments as stark and as clear as that tempting siren from the song’s intro. The resulting instrumentation and the overall chord patterns are as alluring as Heidi’s vocals, with elegant keyboard washes and a charmingly sparse guitar solo that seems similar to the lighter moments of bands such as Marillion, Abel Ganz, or Galahad. An outstanding track.

Another mid-level rocker, “Let the Blood Flow,” once again brings Melissa Etheridge to mind, only with a backdrop of more Marillion-styled organ and keyboard washes. A sudden break in the track’s midsection allows the band to explore some Neo-Prog territory before slowly building into a terrific guitar solo and leading into the song’s final section. Here again, Cloud Atlas shows its mastery of merging the Hard Rock, AOR, and Prog-Rock genres into one enthralling style of its own.

The magnificent ballad, the piano-laden “The Grieving,” is another superb chance for Heidi to showcase her vocal talent. Her delivery is highly emotional, gut-wrenching at times, as she belts out the lyrics, her tone both smooth and periodically raspy as she melodically grieves for a lost love.

Two of the longer tracks, “Falling” and “Stars,” again allow the band to delve into progressive areas when it comes to more intricate arrangements and instrumentation, yet all the while the melody lines reign supreme and make each track memorable.

I could go on and on about several other tracks, but let’s just say instead that not one duff track appears on this album. Indeed, it’s an impressive collection of songs that bathes the band in a light of near perfection and gives hope for a bright future.

So no, this is not a traditional Prog-Rock band. You won’t hear much in the way of time shifts or odd rhythm patterns, no eclectic instruments or wildly progressive arrangements, etc. Instead, you have a band playing moody and mesmerizing Hard Rock and featuring a recognizable female vocalist fully primed for the AOR audience, with only the most appropriate electric or acoustic instruments added to each track to fully support her and the song’s emotional weight. There are no musicians wandering off into forays through Neverland, and there are no unnecessary twiddly bits or wayward instrumentation to distract the listener from the primary goal of fully absorbing the intriguing melodies.

Take from this what you will, but the instant this well-produced album finished playing, I loaded a copy directly into my I-Phone to keep handy at all times. Then I listened to the album again two more times in a row. So bravo to Cloud Atlas. I can’t wait for this impressive band to create more material in the future!

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