Album review: CLOUD ATLAS – Beyond The Vale

Cloud Atlas - Beyond The Vale

York based Stolen Earth – fronted by the exceptional Heidi Widdop – a vocalist whose soulful vocals will send shivers down your spine – were a GRTR! 2012 ‘one to watch’ with their excellent melodic prog debut A Far Cry From Home.

Sadly, while those who had picked up on the band were looking forward to a follow up, it all started to go pear-shaped.  First bassist Paul Teasdale left, followed by a few months later by guitarist Adam Dawson and with the band’s two main songwriters gone it wasn’t too long before Heidi called it a day and the band folded.

Beforehand though, Heidi’s long-time collaborator – guitarist Martin Ledger – had been brought on board for the work-in-progress, until now, video-only release ‘Searchlight’ – a rather fine display of future intent, which also featured stand in keyboard player Brendan Eyre.

But it wasn’t to be and Heidi – whose performing bloodline stretches back through Breathing Space to an early incarnation of Mostly Autumn and who hadn’t had a great deal of input into the recording and producing of A Far Cry From Home – decided it was time to have the courage of her convictions and put together a band as a vehicle for her own song writing.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining and Cloud Atlas was born.  Heidi brought along Martin Ledger (who plays guitars and bass on the album and also contributes to the writing on several numbers), young keyboard player Dave Randall who’d joined Stolen Earth before the final splinter, bassist Stu Carver (who she’d worked with in Mostly Autumn) was recruited, and drummer Neil Scott.

Produced by Zac Bajjon, Beyond The Vale is an old school production – no computers, no auto tune, no cut and paste – a ‘proper’ album of eight songs spanning a generous 67 minutes with, as Heidi succinctly puts it, ‘the odd twiddly bit in between’.

If anyone was concerned that her writing may not be of the calibre of Messrs Teesdale and Dawson, they can stop worrying.  Brought up on a diet of ‘classic’ rock – everything from The Moody Blues, BJH and Wishbone Ash, to Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Lindisfarne, Al Stewart and Jethro Tull, her own style resonates deeply with the period.

The tried and tested ‘Searchlight’ kicks the album off in some stylishness.  Opening with an atmospheric Middle Eastern soundscape it builds in a not dissimilar manner to Marillion’s Gaza before climaxing in an eruption of soaring guitar lines.

It’s a pattern that much of the album follows – ‘Siren Song’ building from a wistful acoustic based beginning to a spiralling finale with Ledger’s fluid guitar work echoing the ‘more feel and less speed’ style of the likes of Gilmour and Rothery.

The thoughtful use of Randall’s keyboards gives much of the album a Moody / BJH texture but it’s Widdop’s exquisite vocals that are the centrepiece of the album.

And when the three elements align – as on the three mid-section songs ‘Falling’, ‘The Grieving’ and ‘Stars’ – which in ‘old money’ would perfectly fill one side of a 12 inch slab of black vinyl – the effect is spectacular.

OK, the construction of ‘The Grieving’ may be heavily Floydian (in particular the Rick Wright style piano work, and Ledger’s guitar lines) but it’s a powerful and collective delivery.

For those who grieved the passing of Stolen Earth, Cloud Atlas signals a bright new chapter and hopefully recognition of Heidi Widdop as one of the finest vocalists of her generation.

Beyond The Vale is an album anyone with even a passing interest in melodic rock should investigate, and an essential listen if, like me, you’ve a soft spot for female vocalists.  If you’re heading to this year’s Cambridge Rock Festival make sure you check them out.  *****

Review by Pete Whalley

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