Cloud Boat: Book of Hours

[8 July 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

When hours can seem like days...

Book of Hours by the English Electronic duo of singer songwriters Sam Ricketts and Tom Clarke, operating under the name Cloud Boat generally calls to mind the term “easy listening” in its overall smooth, light, New Age style. This is the kind of music that (with a few exceptions) could be expected to pump gently through the speakers at any given Yoga or Pilates studio.

Listening to Book of Hours is a bit like listening to one long lullaby with soothing sounds, light guitar and swelling synthesized strings and other building musical textures, enough to soothe anyone to sleep during a massage. One is reminded of “Rivers of Belief”-era Enigma with the smooth electronic sounds as well as the chanting backing vocals that also evoke memories of the 78 minutes or so that the Gregorian Chants of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos were top-40 hitmakers. (Believe it or not, that actually did happen).

Cloud Boat’s lead vocals are clear, well-pitched and occasionally haunting as if they are echoing from a far away place and mixed quietly with the electronic New Age tones of the music. The soulful, gospel-infused vocals of “Youthern” give way to the sorrowful crooning of “Bastion” with equally gospel-inspired backing vocals which, in turn, gives way to the folky, pleading voice on “Dréan”, usually accompanied by the skilled and arpeggio-rich acoustic guitar work of Ricketts.

“Amber Road” is the most engaging song on the album. Starting with an almost disconcerting percussion sound (similar to a record skipping) and evolving into a rich tapestry of synthesized symphonic sounds, subdued chants and an almost incongruously thudding bassline, “Amber Road” shows Cloud Boat at their most experimental and multi-structural. If there is a single song to buy from this album, “Amber Road” should be it.

The experiments on Book of Hours do not always work, however. The lead vocals, though proficient, do get somewhat tiresome in that they always seem distant and meant-to-be haunting with very little variation, even as styles and even vocalists alternate on these tracks. Cloud Boat’s attempt at a different vocal sound on “You Find Me” results in electronically distorted lead and backing vocals over a very minimalist soundscape underneath them. The result is not pleasing. Almost completely indecipherable lyrics sound as if they’re coming from Darth Vader practicing for an audition while the symphony is tuning up about a block away.

Most of the songs follow a similar formula with up-volume electronic drums and bass thrown over the mix of otherwise peaceful and low-key New Age sounds and samples. This approach feels disconcerting and even original at first (especially on “Amber Road”) but the same structure is repeated so often that this approach eventually feels as tiresome as the far-away vocals. With less sameness and more experimentation (outside of synthesized voices), this could be an engrossing and enchanting album even for non-fans of the New Age genre.

A good music critic doesn’t simply listen to an album one time and expect to review it any more than a good book reviewer could assemble a valid critique based on the first and last page of any tome. Repeat listens to Book of Hours both uncovers new and interesting sonic textures in their interwoven, if low-key, wall of sound, as well as revealing more of the same formulaic sounds.

The big change came when I listened to Book of Hours while on a vigorous mountain bike ride in the hills. Suddenly, Cloud Boat became skilled composers to the score for a rich visual landscape and the two merged perfectly. Like the best soundtracks, Book of Hours was never overpowering, but accompanied the beauty here. Of course, this serves to exemplify what is missing from Book of Hours. Were this a video album, it would feel much more complete.

Cloud Boat shows an immense amount of promise on their debut album and with their science fiction, fantasy and ambient music, its two members would be excellent at film scoring. As it stands, the album could use more differentiation and less similarity in its mix of layers. Book of Hours is a promising start for a talented band, but isn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been.

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