Ceremonials, the October 28th, 2011 release by Florence + The Machine is an album that continues on the ethereal rock infused atmospheric pop formula the band uniquely carved out for themselves. Lyrical concepts remain cryptic and Gothic, heavily focusing on the subjects of drowning, the devil, and love despair complete with compositions that are still mainly directed to a wide pop audience spanning across Top 40 Pop, Adult Contemporary, Rock listeners and beyond. These aspects of music have earned the Florence projects mass critical acclaim and commercial success while staying true to an artistry that holds a blueprint gifted a breath of fresh air in a mainstream world that is currently dominated with tight, outboard dry production.
What sets this sophomore project apart from Florence’s humble 2009 Lungs debut is its dive into a sonic world that’s more soulful while offering more of a Baroque pop feel than it’s 2009 predecessor Lungs, filling the tracks with even more viola, cello, violin, and other various string instruments that give delicate compliments to the heavily reverberated percussion sections and unbelievably strong, talented vocal style of English singer Florence Welch.
In fact, a constant on this record, minus the signature sound of the band, is the high attention surrounding Welch’s vocals on this record. There are layers and layers of them on each song, treated with exuberant amounts of reverb, heavily compressed to add extra strength to them, and set at the front of the mixes to enforce a clear, powerful narrative.
Upon first impression, it’s the Ceremonials’ fifth track “Breaking Down” that holds the subtleties that come together to form a bigger picture to provide the best understanding of the album. The happy driving of the beat, the cutesy melodic keyboards, and quick string stabs paint happy irony across the sonic landscape about being self-aware of an oncoming emotional downward spiral in true Baroque pop flavor. Equipped with bright EQ boosts on the majority of the melodic instrumentation on the song, it relays a slap-back tape-esque delay that playfully chugs along the kick, snare, and main vocal lead – giving the track even more of a pep in it’s step and using extremely elongated reverbs (hall verbs?) on the “ah’s” of the chorus to provide an eerie darkness to aide the pessimistic, almost sarcastically numb, and frightful delivery of the soft, whispering vocals. It’s a song that’s most skillful in expressing it’s emotional discourse through unexpected light, happy sounding song composition combined with an even more high-spirited mixing tongue in cheek expression of sentiment.
Sentiment is not to be confused with sentimental, as declaration of forlorn consciousness is what the sophomore album is comprised of. “And now all your love will be exorcised, and we will find your sayings to be paradox, and it’s an even sum, it’s a melody, it’s a final cry, it’s a symphony,” Florence laments on the album’s most paralyzing track, “Seven Devils”. A quickly delayed synth coming in at the end of certain bars during the track creates the only bit of hope within the track that combines huge violin and cello sections laying down for the mysterious production, layered with track upon track upon track, all probably strung together through an auxiliary track to create the reverberated sound that gives the song it’s atmospheric chill. It’s darker than dark and is yet another track that transcribes hopelessness and love lost in a way that exists in almost a Horror-esque, almost Halloween style fashion, perfect for the late October release of the record.
In a completely separate direction, the debut single “What The Water Gave Me” gives way to a post-dance temperament that was a no brainer for release under the impression of it’s potential impact with what modern music sounds like. Kick and chain-like sounding snare samples, polished with a distant guitar line driving the faint melodic content of the track are the standout portions of the song that wades along the line between dance and pop to deliver a song that never explodes toward a synth-heavy expression of melodically driven poly-rhythms, nor the gloomy productions normally associated with alternative dance genres, but stays too stagnant to be considered taken a full pop route – creating yet another interestingly difficult, un-catagorizable artistic document that gives Florence + The Machine the undeniably sophisticated approach to being unable to be placed neatly into a one-tricky pony sort of boxed production.
There is also a demo version of “What the Water Gave Me” on the Deluxe Edition of the album that is a more stripped down, synth/dance-esque theoretic track, made up almost entirely of sampled sound packs that give an eye opener to what the rough version of the mood of the track and what it was originally conceptually supposed to be. A nice gem, filled with interesting synth envelops, compression techniques, automation oscillation, and raw, un-layered vocals.
“Remain Nameless” is another Deluxe Edition track, more Electronic and sample based in nature that is a flawless Downtempo, Trip-Hop inspired, sparse track stays dormant in it’s composition but is so moody and effective that not much needs to be done to it by the time the percussion explodes into it’s simplistic programmed loops that come together to recall something Emilie Autumn would string together for one of her records.. Sonically, it’s a disgusting mess with low frequencies clashing and trying to cancel each other out due to a lack of equalizing and giving certain portions of the bass and kicks to have their own sonic wholes, instead, all combining to muddy up everything. This disaster best describes every single imperfection present throughout this Florence + The Machine presentation.
Although Ceremonials musicianship, lyrical standpoint, and interesting creativity on the mixing portions of the songs are all present, there’s extreme engineering flaws throughout the full run of the record and is an extreme disappointment to what could have been one of the most well put together album’s of the year. “Shake It Out” epitomizes the essence of what Ceremonials sounds like. The kick and snare command awareness as they drive the uptempo’s organ and bass oriented composition while Florence’s vocals are mixed in a way in which the lead vocal is clear, but the backgrounds fall buried underneath the prominent mix, sounding less compressed and at times so low in the mix that it’s tone is disjointed in combination with the rest of the details going on in the song. This is mostly due to the fact that compression and loudness is such a factor in the two releases Welch has released so far that if an element of a song is not treated as if it’s aggressively attempting to reach an eardrum then it’s not meant to be. In fact, “Shake It Out” falls under a Dynamic Range 4 rating, with peaks being controlled by a limiter most likely applied both in the mixing and mastering stages of production to save from track from distorting.
Sadly, when mixing in a fashion that’s presented toward a more thunderous and demanding approach, limiting a sound wave in such a way will completely destroy harmonic content, leaving what would normally be a beautiful melodic performance, crushed instead, resulting in an unpleasing end product. Ceremonials is filled with examples of this and is devastatingly heartbreaking within the already heartbroken songs. Any time Ms. Welch reaches a louder volume of sound in voice, the compressors and limiters run so hot on her vocal tracks that the presentation of the sung notes come off at a a constant harmonic level and by the end come off actually sounding distorted at times. “Only If For A Night” is a prime culprit of this happening, specifically at the b-section of the song where every single one of the layers ends in a note sung out and loud with absolutely no harmonic content inside of it and instead comes out sounding like loud, distorted, un-humanistic, and while it makes way for an interesting listen the first couple of times around, eventually leads to ear fatigue because of it’s completely relentless power.
Whether it was the over-eagerness of mix engineers Tom Elmhirst, Craig Silvey, Mark Rankin, Mark “Spike” Stent, producer Paul Epworth, mastering engineer Ted Jensen, or the demands from Universal Republic Records who are to blame for it’s flaws, the engineering assessment could be filled with critique for pages upon pages, but interestingly enough all of the downfalls could be looked at in a more obscure fashion, trading in the abrasive mixing techniques at face value, instead thinking of them as telling the story of an album on a deeper, sonic level. Florence Welch stated being obsessed with drowning and it’s apparent just reading through the lyrics of the record. “I was obsessed with drowning. It’s about succumbing and being completely overwhelmed by something that’s bigger than everything” stated Welch during an interview and it’s crystal clear that the sonics of this album completely immerse your ears and if listening through headphones at a decent volume, it’s easy to get lost in the loudness and allow the noise from the record to in an essence, actually drown the outside noise toxins around you and drown you in it’s own pollutions. It’s a stretch, but one valid and artistically interesting if correct.
If it’s any consolation, in the liner notes of the disc there is a short essay by British journalist Emma Forrest that recalls her memories and feelings upon listening to Ceremonials and reminds us that underneath all of the engineering mishaps of the technical side of the album, it’s still an emotional rollercoaster. An album to be placed next to the angst Alternative singer/songwriter chicks and Rock albums alike. “You may, right now, be nursing a broken heart” she writes in the final paragraph, “Friends will say ‘well aren’t you glad you had the experience anyway?’ and you may even say ‘No.’ Eventually, unbelievably, you may not even remember the boy or girl that triggered it all. You’ll recall all the places you visited, but now how you got there. You’ll remember the songs that you listened to.”
Album rating: 2.5/5
[We would gladly give it a 4 if the end product was better sonically]