Cloud Boat - Book Of Hours

by Charly Richardson Rating:8.5 Release Date:2013-06-03

Alt-R&B really is having a field day. Since the beginning of the year we've had important releases from Autre Ne Veut, inc., Stubborn Heart, James Blake and Majical Cloudz, to name a few. And this is all blending quite nicely with the post-dubstep tag which is being applied to pretty much anything which includes the slightest smatter of electronics. Time for Cloud Boat to stamp their influence on this exciting movement.

But Cloud Boat (aka Sam Ricketts and Tom Clarke) can't really be categorised that easily. They list Pantera (both used to play in metal bands) and 60s folk bloke Tim Hardin as influences, albeit alongside more contemporary artists like Digital Mystikz. Throughout Book of Hours, this seemingly effortless combination of influences sees delicate, folky vocals on top of grungy guitars and electronic soundscapes which wouldn't be out of place on a Burial record.

What is most striking is its stark minimalism. 'Youthern' starts with acapella, modal vocal harmonies, while 'Pink Grin I' with a lonesome, single guitar string (interestingly for an 'electronic music' group, the guitar, not the synth, is their weapon of choice). The later brings to mind both Radiohead and Jeff Buckley in a decidedly 21st century eulogy. This apparent debt to Buckley is something which also crops up in James Blake's Overgrown. It just so happens they were childhood friends with Blake, and his influence is palpable.

But Cloud Boat are no copycats. 'Pink Grin II' reprises material from the forethought of 'Pink Grin I', adding a future-garage shuffle before descending into what can only be described as a dubstep slow-jam. And this isn't the only time material is linked or recycled. In fact most of Book of Hours blends seamlessly into itself, yet this doesn't seem forced or unnatural. There is an ebb and flow to the album which carries it along nicely (although this is possibly the reason why, despite a reasonable 40 minutes playtime, Book of Hours seems a little short). This dreaminess is engrossing, but at times it feels like a collection of afterthoughts/interludes which needs to be punctuated with a few more clear statements/singles.

But then if you're looking for banging beats you've come to the wrong place. 'Lions on the Beach' has a fidgety, SBTRKT-esque groove; the industrial, apocalyptic 'Amber Road' could be Vex'd; 'Bastion' unveils a delicious sub-bass rumble eventually (but the first half of the song sounds like a country record being played at the wrong RPM). In fact, on songs such as 'Dréan', 'Kowloon Bridge' and 'You Find Me', there are no beats at all, just guitars, haunting vocals and subtle, tasteful atmospherics. The later song makes superb use of vocal pitch-shift.

Cloud Boat have a fantastically appropriate name: you can't help getting sucked into their serene, euphoric soundworld. There's an almost spiritual quality to their music. After all, the album is named after a devotional book from the Middle Ages. Singer Tom Clarke's musing lyrics go deeper than the average, and his restrained delivery nicely compliments the bitter-sweet melancholy of the lyric: "Until I'm ready to be a man/ Until the days don't feel so heavy on my back" ('Bastion'). Meanwhile, the gently-crooned melody of ''Dréan' contrasts brilliantly with the dark, borderline-morbid lyrics: "Death is coming/ He rides into town on a horse/ so keep hold of the reigns/ He's knocking on everyone's door".

With its bleak and moody production, sparse electronics, angst-ridden guitars and pensive vocals, Book of Hours won't get your feet moving or blood pumping excitedly. But for the right listener, it is an absorbing and brave piece of work. A deliciously understated debut which will surely push this burgeoning, experimental scene even further.

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