Ceremonials: Florence and the Machine’s Second Epic Album
The sophomore slump is a very real obstacle in music. Often, a given band’s debut album is well conceived, well executed, and innovative, raising anticipation and expectation for a follow-up. Unfortunately, the band may fall prey to one of two outcomes: either it is so concerned with creating a better product that it comes up short, or else the novelty of the first album has simply worn off by the time the second one is released. The band then releases an album and effectively ends its career. This has happened to bands like Gnarls Barkley, The Polyphonic Spree, and The Kaiser Chiefs. Luckily, it’s the complete opposite of what is happening to Florence and the Machine. Ceremonials, released on October 31, represents a phenomenal second effort from a band that has not only defined its niche but has expanded and improved it.
Lungs, the band’s debut, received critical acclaim for its enormous sound, largely attributed to Florence Welch’s unbelievable vocals. Essentially, Ceremonials is, amazingly, an even bigger and better Lungs. Florence and the Machine’s formula is simple yet specific—and they have honed it: take Welch’s epic voice, throw it on top of a drum sound that must have been largely influenced by the booming drums of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” and add some strings, harps, and organs. Florence and the Machine has created a home for itself, writing dark and moody anthemic music. The songs are huge, ambitious works, creating intense atmospheres and sonorities, and effectively evoking all sorts of emotions, usually dealing with lost love. However, the point of departure from the debut album is that the band has taken its sound and infused other styles with it. It has done this so successfully that even the rare instance of joy in any of its songs is taken with a grain of salt.
With her unique tone, Welch is clearly the foundation upon which the band has built itself. Her voice has a depth and emotional weight of which most singers only dream. She is also infatuated with sad stories of love and death, topics which give direction to her emotion. Her style tends toward the older female singer sound, which makes the whole package all the more revolutionary—a more classic style combined with modern music. She also has an expansive range and excellent control of dynamics. This allows her to begin songs like “No Light, No Light,” one of the album’s singles, in a lower register, keeping her energy bubbling just under the surface, and yet to explode into its chorus with huge, soaring vocals. The same control of dynamic direction is exemplified time and again throughout this album, particularly on “Shake it Off,” “What the Water Gave Me,” and “Heartlines.” Additionally, Welch’s vocals are treated expertly in the studio by producer Paul Epworth. Her vocals are always front and center yet sometimes pulled slightly back to create a fuller atmosphere. On many tracks, there are moments at which Florence’s vocals are exposed and it sounds as though she overpowers the microphone used to record her, an effect which is not traditionally used but which functions extremely well on Ceremonials, allowing the raw power of Welch’s voice to overwhelm the listener.
The other main component of the success of this album is the way in which “The Machine” provides a complement to Florence. Chris Hayden, the drumming part of The Machine helps create the extremely ambitious atmospheres on each song, playing simple yet heavy beats that add to the dark feel of the album. With a very loose snare and a sound that surrounds the mix, the drums set the tone for the songs. This is particularly noticeable on the chorus of “Shake it Out” as well as on the first track, “Only if for a Night.” Additionally, recognition must be given to the excellent use of extras such as harps, thematic piano, and background vocals. The use of the harp before the chorus of “No Light, No Light” is an excellent lead-in to the chorus and is reminiscent of Debussy’s preludes. The piano, usually relegated to playing the pad of chords in each song, plays the theme from The Twilight Zone on “Seven Devils” and allows the music to capture the feeling of “seven devils all around you.” The backing harmonies on each song, aside from adding to the general texture, provide a bed for Welch’s soaring vocals, enriching the sound of her voice. In each song, there is something extra that adds a great deal to the texture of the song. This is a testament both to the band, using its assets to forge forward with a unique sound, and to the producers of the album, properly harnessing the tools at their disposal to emphasize the band’s strengths.
As iTunes continues its upward climb and the music business continues its downward spiral, the number of singles released and downloaded skyrockets and the number of full-length albums released and downloaded drops. While it seems that, in today’s age, singles fit our collective attention spans better, we must lament the loss of the studio album, a way for a band to explore a theme, display its style, and explore and expand that style. It is therefore even more impressive that Florence and the Machine decided to release a full-length album on which they do exactly that. This album is a must-have for anyone who ever needs a break from sappy love songs and cheesy pop songs. Warning: it will be extremely difficult to listen to Z100 after listening to this album.