Florence Welch, the ginger haired singer of the band, has a quality that in this country we call "galmen". A voice that can set up a volume like it is resonating in a cathedral. There is no translation that really tells the story. A way of singing that I have a hard time enjoying listening to. With this album the band has found a way to neutralise this quality in the full album sound, where one and one become three somehow.
A bit to my surprise The Machine is a real band. The seven members are together for the whole stretch. Florence Welch is accompanied by Isabella Summers (keyboards, backing vocals), Robert Ackroyd (lead guitar) , Christopher Lloyd Hayden (drums), Tom Monger (harp, xylophone, bass, backing vocals) , Mark Saunders (bass, bv) and Rusty Bradshaw (rhythm guitar, keyboards, bv). Add a load of brass and other instruments and you have a wall of sound that Phil Spector could have lived with without pulling out any shooting attributes. Responsible for this huge sound is Markus Dravs, whose name can be found on many a record of a huge band of this past 10 years. The brass arrangements are by Goldfrapp's Will Gregory.
Where songwriting is concerned the band is not involved. Welch seeks partners to write with mostly outside of the band. In that sense The Machine is not a real band. Where the accompaniment is concerned it certainly is. Together they cook up a storm in most songs and hold back where it is asked for. Dynamics can be found across the album, taking care of drama and empathy.
It all starts with the song that was the first single. The up tempo pop rocker has a strong fundament, graced with intricate lead guitar notes. In the chorus this downwards chords are played embellished with a xylophone while Florence keeps firmly singing in a forward direction. The arrangement and dynamics in 'Ship To Wreck' is very well taken care of, making the song stand out and setting the standard for the rest of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful at a high level.
Without copying the first single, this standard is not a problem. Florence + the Machine jump it easily again and again. The approach to the songs is varied, whether laidback or full out rocking, the band is comfortable in all settings. In the singing I hear a lot of the young Sinéad O'Connor. Florence must have heard songs like 'Troy' and 'Mandinka' while in the writing stage of this album. Just listen to the intro of the title song and the way it changes into the up tempo part. Talking of one of the better songs on the album. This is one of them.
Another one is the new single 'Queen Of Peace'.One of the rocking songs that is driven on relentlessly by the rhythm section. The one who is not hurried is vocalist Florence Welch. Together with the long held notes of the keyboard she takes her time to deliver her vocals. This contrast makes that the song totally works. The horns playing accents finish it off. Towards the end a whole orchestra is going wild blowing the song up to gigantic proportions. 'Queen Of Peace' can have it easily. The layers and layers of music all hold together. Did I mention Phil Spector before?
The contrast with 'Various Storms & Saints' is large and well chosen. The album could do with a resting point. That welcome bench after a steep walk overlooking the beautiful valley below. In a moment like this Adele comes to mind, in a rocking kind of way. In this empty song it is Welch who keeps the tempo with her voice. Speeding up, as in more words in the same space and relaxing in the right places. Impressive song this is.
When 'Delilah' starts I notice I want to write on this song also. An extremely good sign for an album. Song 6 and still anxious to write. Why? 'Delilah' also has this slow build up with an urgently singing Florence Welch over a near empty soundscape with a call response in the singing. The build up just spells it out: the band is coming any moment but when? When it kicks in it is relentless. A driving force, a hurricane, taking everything in front of it with it to unknown quarters.
Do I need more? No. The album knows no real weaker points. The band keeps working on the dynamics which it is excellent in. Florence Welch can even sing without the bellows of her lungs on full force ('Long & Lost'), with a band that totally holds back as well. Percussion remains unpacked in its boxes, there's just atmosphere. A dive into more pop-oriented fields ('Caught') or U2 territory meets 60s girl pop ('Third Eye'). They all sound convincing.
Florence + The Machine totally surprised me with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. And aren't surprised what makes this life so much more fun?
You can listen to 'Queen Of Peace' here:
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