8th August 2015
Review by Grey Blackstone
Videography by GR Studios
Cloud Atlas are an independently-published underground progressive rock band hailing from York, whose debut album “Beyond the Vale” is available on the band’s website and Bandcamp (links below). They are fronted by Heidi Widdop, a seasoned veteran of the prog scene and a consummate perfectionist who has been constantly evolving musically; this band is her most refined project to date.
They are a band who specialise in building atmosphere both with their songs and performance, and this is undeniably apparent in their opening number, “Searchlight”. The house lights fall, and the performers make their way on stage:
From the darkness and silence, a single organ chord builds, laying the acoustic foundation. Pale blue light picks out Heidi as her whistle dances in and out, cutting through the swathe of synth which now joins the organ. Fog billows on stage, a sheet of dark blue with the performers’ silhouettes looming behind it. Next, the sounds of a bustling crowd and melancholy singing transport us to a Marrakesh market square whilst -echoing the melodic minor vocals- Martin’s guitar cuts through the soundscape. Judicious use of the EBow brings a poignant, sorrowful cry which ebbs and flows, gently transitioning us from the ambient sounds into the signature riff. The guitar sound is a fine balance between power and clarity, pushing the Overdrive to lend some real weight to the power chords blasting out of the Marshall stack. The drums build a crescendo, the song bursts into life and sly grins creep across the faces of the audience, most of whom are already swaying and headbanging.
And then, Heidi begins to sing.
A rich, powerful voice bellows out, warm and rounded but clean enough to push through to the front of the sound. Full of emotion, Heidi immerses herself in the music and the audience feed from it.
The lead guitar takes a step back, giving us space as Heidi’s acoustic guitar comes to the fore. Singing softly now, she gives us a taste of her vocal versatility. The drums are a gentle but driving beat to keep the song moving in this quieter section. Phil’s bass line underpins the song, bridging the rhythm and melody without being overpowering while Martin punctuates the chord work tastefully, picking out licks as the space presents itself. A moment later, and Dave lets rip on the organ between singing phrases. Everyone seems to be working together, taking their chance to express themselves but not letting it get in the way of the song as a whole.
The pre-chorus swells before exploding into the chorus, the signature riff embellished with a catchy vocal melody which is over all too quickly. Next we’re treated to a guitar solo, which is a brilliant mix of technical prowess and emotion, meaty licks interspersed with some impressive shredding. We move onto the final chorus, building on the power of the first as everyone engages deeper with the song. The might of the refrain has Heidi’s voice almost overloading even the precisely-monitored top-level microphone assigned to her and yet, even still, she seems to be reining her voice in as though it’s some force of outright destruction which needs to be controlled. After this massive climax, the song eases us gently into the finish, with a short, upbeat solo from Martin ending us on a high.
The crowd are hooked, those who didn’t already know the band look shocked, muttering comments to one another in the wake of this display.
The first set of the night is now in full swing, and we see a brilliant range of musical dynamics. The next two songs, “Let the Blood Flow” and “The Falling” glide together in one seamless piece. Opening with a brief, fiery flurry of drums, it is fast and strong for the first song yet brooding and atmospheric for the second. “Let the Blood Flow” is the drummer’s (also called Dave, confusingly) time to shine, as he lays down intricate fast-paced beats with sporadic but beautifully-timed fills, taking the space left by the subdued but melodic lead and acoustic parts. “The Falling” gives Dave (keys) a chance to show what he can do, with some rich, atmospheric synth work somewhat reminiscent of Steven Wilson’s “Grace for Drowning” adding an interesting texture to the sound when combined with the more traditional instruments in play; a perfectly balanced mix of old and new.
Having played the first few songs in order of appearance on their album, the band decide to give us a little change with a song from Stolen Earth, a previous project of Heidi’s. It’s a nice chance for her loyal fans to indulge in a little nostalgia but also for us to hear the song played in a fresh and more refined way. Listening to it, we can hear the character of sound present in Cloud Atlas’ work whilst also noting the differences not only between songs but between the performance of this song today and on its original release. While always musically talented, we can see just how far Heidi has been progressing with her music, and the level of craftsmanship offered by her current band. To bring the song to an electric conclusion, Martin unleashes a blues-rock solo so intense it almost shears the faces off the audience.
After this triumphant moment they decide to call an end to the first set, giving the audience a chance to process the performance they’ve just seen. The band acted as a single unit, everyone interacting with each other, using the stage area to its fullest and finding space to showcase their skills without any one person dominating. They put their all into the songs, and the audience know this and feed off it, the energy of which is reciprocated, and even people who had never heard of the band before were swaying, fist-pumping and staring in awe.
The Railway Venue itself is warm and welcoming, akin to a large pub but with a generous stage and performance area. The mix of rural and musical décor combines to give it a wealth of character and the friendly staff and patrons give it a comfortable atmosphere. It’s a perfect venue for such an intimate gig, no separation between crowd and performers meaning both are free to interact and lose themselves in the moment.
While the rest of the band took a breather in the cool night air, Heidi was kind enough to sacrifice most of her break time to give us an interview, which can be viewed here. Surprisingly, when talking conversationally, her voice is soft and gentle, a complete contrast to her singing – clearly she has honed her craft and developed the voice she wanted to put to her music!
To open the second set Heidi and Dave (on keys) return together, with the rest of the band waiting patiently off-stage. They start with a brilliant rendition of the Chris Cornell arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. This version of the song suits Heidi’s voice to a tee, a soulful and moving performance to top even Cornell’s. They follow this up with a cover of the piano version of Thom Yorke’s “Analyse”. Their interpretation is more deliberate, and adds a welcome space to the lilting piano melody while the weight of Heidi’s voice adds to the song, strengthening the sound.
In all it’s a clever move as it allows us all to see what they can do with familiar material and, by this point, it’s undeniable that the whole venue are behind them. From this they move to cover the remainder of the first album, rearranging the setlist slightly to give those of us familiar with it an interesting dynamic. Each song is played passionately and full of additional intricacies which clearly show how even existing material is still being built upon. The songs are consistent in sound, recognisable as the band’s work but varying in tone. The standout piece of the second half is “Stars”, originally taking an earlier place in the album but shrewdly rescheduled as the finale for the performance.
Starting with some folky guitar and brief but perfectly-suited recorder-playing, it sounds almost medieval and I begin to feel as though I’m in a musty tavern being regaled by a group of minstrels. We then move into a swift rhythm and beautifully wistful lead melody, the vocals join and paint a picture of a lost adventurer, alone at night with only the stars for company. As I listen I can feel the night air on my skin and see the shimmering lights piercing the darkness when, as if on cue, the the lighting system comes to life, spattering points of coloured light on the performers. The next section is positively exultant, and brings us to a grandiose pre-chorus which gives Dave time to let loose a virtuoso performance on the keyboards, interplaying with Heidi’s voice. With razor-sharp timing, he stops just on the edge of the spacious chorus, the main hooks being the memorable vocal line with the pulsing tom work of Dave on drums.
Next seems to be a duet between organ and guitar, both playing intricate, interlocking parts, bringing us to the mysterious and atmospheric middle section where sensual vocals ride atop the swirling synth, the sonic space bridged by the acoustic guitar. Dark and foreboding, the section is fleshed out with another layer of synth, the distant reverberating lamentations of trapped souls. It blasts into a massive rephrasing of the pre-chorus and chorus, played at half-time and surrounded by thunderous drums. Finally, Martin’s wailing, impassioned guitar solo takes us through to the final build-up and, one explosive chord later, the song is over. The room erupts into cheering, whistling and applause.
The performance was astounding, showcasing not only technical skill but emotional involvement of a band working together as an entity; those who didn’t know of them before the gig will surely be singing their praises for a long time!
Now, consider that the band had taken the gig on last minute notice, that the bassist and drummer were recruited as session musicians to fill in for it (the fact they fit in so well as to be indistinguishable as non-permanent members is a testament to the welcoming nature of the band’s members as well as the level of research and preparation involved in selecting these musicians and readying them for the show) and, furthermore, Heidi arrived at the venue suffering from a back injury incurred earlier in the day, then heightened by the long van ride from their home town of York and yet still managed to raise the hairs on my neck with her emotional display…
It really makes me want to see what Cloud Atlas can do on a good day, and I would whole-heartedly urge you all to do the same.