Bastion, the third track on London duo Cloud Boat’s debut album ‘Book Of Hours’, feels like a crucial moment in understanding the record as a whole. Intensely moving and full of intense movement, its structure is sprawling and its sonics are constantly shifting – slipping from tentative acoustic guitar plucks to the cavernous, far-off pulse of bass to an orchestral swarm of skittering percussion and layered female vocals. Dancing somewhere between folk and post-dubstep, the song winds itself around the theme of wanting stability, with vocalist Tom Clarke pleading “I need to feel like you would watch my babies be born” and “I need to feel like you will need me when you grow old” – at its core, though, is a distinct feeling of instability, with the song periodically rushing forwards before recoiling back, repeatedly surprising the listener.
The fact that this track is followed by the acoustic lament Dréan, which in turn leads into the spookily industrial, wordless electronic storm of Amber Road, just goes to show even further the quality that marks out ‘Book of Hours’ as a spectacular debut full-length – that is, its oxymoronic ability to make diversity cohere. Just as the sound of Bastion swings back and forth like an uncertain rope bridge, the whole album is a back-and-forth journey from confessional moments of closeness to far-off wails, from meticulous melodies to broken-down jams, from acoustic instrumentation to the sinister boom of electronic percussion. And yet, just as Bastion manages to make this lop-sided instability into the very central factor that gives stability to the whole track, ‘Book Of Hours’ sticks close to its central ideas, giving it its own unique voice – and despite the superficially meandering, genre-hopping quality of the music itself, it’s a confident voice that never wavers.
The essential strength of this album is the gift for songwriting brought to it by Sam Ricketts and Tom Clarke, who take the album far beyond just a sonic experiment with the attention to detail and the emotional engagement they pour into every note. One brilliant example of this ability comes with the double shock of Pink Grin I and Pink Grin II, the first part of which hints at the second through a wash of bittersweet guitars and various levels of distortion, teasing out its themes in an agonising build-up, until the tension breaks with the placement of Tom’s wordless moans over a dance-inducing beat in part II. This is one song masterfully suspended throughout two movements, and it’s haunting both in the sense that it sounds terribly dark and that it has a classic catchiness.
That songwriting perfectionism is obvious in the album’s confident pauses and absences as much as it is in its moments of noise. As the album opens on the distinct and sparse percussion of Lions On The Beach and ends on the stripped-back songwriting of the closer Kowloon Bridge, working its way there via the echoing pitched-down vocal of You Find Me and the a capella first few lines (the eerie “come down with us”) of Youthern, it’s apparent that ‘Book Of Hours’ was created from an extremely minimalist palette. Ricketts and Clarke have been frequently compared to James Blake for their “sad electronic” vibe, but it’s this similarity in the way they work that most strikingly connects them to him. Brian Eno said of Blake recently, “what’s interesting about him as an artist is that he works mostly by subtraction, he takes lots of stuff out and ends up with very skeletal pieces”, and judging by the very precise and deliberate spaciousness of ‘Book Of Hours’, that technique of deconstruction is something that the duo have inherited from post-dubstep’s most prominent pioneer.
With the temporal “post-” label stuck to it, the inherently ephemeral post-dubstep feels like a dated genre to be discussing in 2013. Just when you think there’s no more blubstep to be had, though, Cloud Boat have shown that not only can it still be imaginative, but that it can make itself timeless by engulfing emotionally resonant genres like folk and soul. By starting out with the solid songwriting craft and powerful narratives typical of these genres, and then chipping at those foundations until they’re distorted enough to create something entirely new, the duo have reinvigorated the “working by subtraction” formula and found a way to make it sound more full than empty. Reduced to its elements, ‘Book Of Hours’ is a record that bares its soul, and not only that, but reveals a soul so dense and thoughtful you could stare into it for hours.