Up Above Our Heads: Clouds 1966-1971

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Straddling the line between vocal pop and all-out prog explorations, Scottish rock trio Clouds toiled over their complex compositions in relative obscurity before disbanding in 1971. Though probably not the first, on later recordings the band honed an intricate rock sound that relied on organ and completely eschewed guitar, making them an anomaly in the developing prog movement that was largely defined by noodling stringed instruments. Up Above Our Heads: Clouds 1966-1971 includes all known work by the band, with U.K.-only albums Watercolour Days and Scrapbook and the U.S.-issued Up Above Our Heads, as well as demos and other unreleased material. The earliest material finds the band running through fragmented songs in decidedly different styles ranging from extended psychedelic freakout ("Sing, Sing, Sing") to after-hours jazz garage numbers like the woozy "Old Man." The gently crooned "The Colours Have Run" finds vocalist Ian Ellis toning things down with a full orchestra, achieving the same Chet Baker-inspired vocal melancholia that the Zombies and Scott Walker would find in their strongest moments of subdued beauty. On the second disc of the collection, the density and precision of Clouds' musicianship lends itself to the types of head-spinning progressive workouts that bands of the same era like Egg and Soft Machine were immersing themselves in. These heady compositions, however, were always tempered with a strong traditional songwriting sensibility. The Hammond organ-driven "Mind of a Child" delivers its antiwar sentiments like some pleasant hybrid of early electric Dylan and later-period Small Faces. "A Day of Rain," with its grisly baritone vocals, predicts Nick Cave with eerie similarity by about ten years. It's moments like these that make it a mystery why Clouds never saw mass appeal in their day. Bowie and Keith Emerson both championed the band during its existence, and the influence of Clouds could be heard later in Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the organ-heavy sounds of the Nice, and other followers. With the amount of tossed-off filler taking up space on records by established bands like Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, and even the Kinks during the same time period, Clouds were crafting stronger and more interesting takes on similar sounds. Up Above Our Heads is another chapter of what may be one of the oldest stories in the rock & roll book: why wasn't this band huge? Weighing in at over two hours of music, this two-disc set may be a lot to take in at once. Clouds' strength lies in their almost Beatlesque level of varied sounds and successful experiments with different styles, and they are thusly best approached on a song-by-song basis. Riding a number of stylistic waves so well, it's a mystery why Clouds never really made it to the shore.

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