Sunday, 28 June 2015

HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL Album Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you desire an indie pop/rock record with a symphonic scope and lyrical ardour unmatched by many of the genre's key artists

Skip it... if you triumph the grandeur of Florence and the Machine's first and second albums and refuse to accept a quieter, more passive work from the band   
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

THIS IS A REVIEW OF THE STANDARD, 11 TRACK EDITION OF HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL

"The intimacy of their writing; the grandiose production; the evocative restraint; it all compounds to yield what is easily considered the band's most consistently impressive release."

The depths of her despair are made apparent in the opening track, 'Ship To Wreck'. Despite its generic chord progressions, the cue does impart the appropriate mood that the rest of the album shall encompass; abrasive, sonically arresting and bold. Lead vocalist and songwriter, Florence Welch, describes the insecurity that accompanies one of her relationships, and the treacherous waters she sits atop. Peril and fear punctuate her lyricism and the tempo is frantic, a bustling force that seems to directly contradict the self-destructive behavior Welch is describing. It's not an exceedingly strong track on its own terms, but it is an effective way to reestablish the songwriter's insistent turmoil that remains throughout much of her work. And thus, we are thrown headfirst into an album of wild and frenetic chaos, the pain associated with this relationship of her's translated into musical splendour, full of vitriolic spite that spouts profusely from her lips, and the kind of instrumental magnificence rarely seen within alternative pop underscoring the tragic sorrow she resides within. It beckons forth greatness.  

Florence and the Machine's third studio album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, sees the band evolve drastically, shifting perspectives and rapidly expanding their foresight. Their sound, usually ever-rambunctious, pounding with an aggressive grace that never seems to relent, has reverted to something far more ethereal and personal; the shattering percussion and soaring vocals still remain, but primary producer for the album Markus Dravs brings forth the string ensemble, piano and backing vocals in a way we have never been exposed to before with this group. The cataclysmic intensity of 'Cosmic Love', one of the strongest tracks on their initial record Lungs, is primarily forfeit for an aural palette closer to that employed within their subsequent release, Ceremonials. Cathartic instrumentals, reflective lyrical content and grief-stricken vocals plague this album, reminiscent of the wistful tone established originally in tracks like 'Shake It Out', 'Never Let Me Go' and 'Seven Devils'. The surrealistic madness of their previous works is bolstered in this instance by a spirituality and depth that Florence and the Machine have lacked in prior endeavours. The intimacy of their writing; the grandiose production; the evocative restraint; it all compounds to yield what is easily considered the band's most consistently impressive release to date. 

This is in part due to the efforts of aforementioned producer Dravs, who has taken over production duties from Paul Epworth and James Ford, who handled the previous two LPs. Epworth's only credit on this work lies on the concluding track, 'Mother'; one of the few pieces where Welch is matched in volume and prominence by her accompaniment. For this album, Dravs' usually bright methodology is exchanged for a more introspective attitude, and the maximalistic bombast of Ceremonials is oft-times rejected for texture and vocal emphasis. This isn't to discount how large the band sounds here at their most forceful; the alternative rock influences on the captivating 'What Kind Of Man', boisterous 'Delilah' and vibrant 'Third Eye' allow opportunities to tap along with unrestrained glee as Welch wails about both internal and existential dilemmas. But where Ceremonials lacked in breathing room, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful compensates heartily; Dravs contains the percussion, brass and guitars aptly to focus on Welch and her personal conflict. The vocalist simultaneously tones down her customarily enormous range to adhere to the inherent mood of the lyrical content, and thus we are treated to an album that feels distinct from its Florence brethren. Welch floats above the instrumentals, providing us insight into her clustered mental state, full of regret, hardship and reflection. 

This release serves as the first instance where the band's material feels abruptly comparable to other, similar works. The outstanding 'Long & Lost', with its angelic choral work, feels eerily akin to the haunting minimalistic style of London Grammar, specifically that of vocalist Hannah Reid; the mixing of Welch's performance is done in a manner that resembles Reid's within her tracks 'Strong', 'Hey Now' and 'Nightcall'. But the band remains mostly distinct in its composition, the string and piano work fluctuating sensuously, whilst the brass roars ahead with an intrepid conviction. Stylistically, the group aren't pushing many barriers; instead, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful feels like a natural and mellow progression in their career. The "wall-of-sound" description that often accompanies discussion of Ceremonials is not applicable in this setting; the subdued melodies, crescendos and flourishes allow a listener to appreciate every individual component behind the production and performances. The aural direction of the record feels the most refined of all the Florence works. Even during intricate symphonic instrumentals, a la the titular 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful', the album is mixed to provide pristine clarity. It's a relief and a necessity in such a detailed release.

The record also possesses a level of variety from track-to-track that Lungs and Ceremonials lacked. Sometimes, this renders a jarring tonal incongruity, but for the most part, thematic continuity preserves the flow of the work. 'Ship To Wreck' moves effortlessly into the subsequent 'What Kind Of Man', a pulsating and rugged track that demands answers from Welch's scornful lover, before the album delves into the soul sound that was promised within the secondary single 'St Jude'; a song which is arguably the least accomplished on the release. The most consistently impressive portion of the album, beginning with 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful' and concluding with 'Long & Lost', serves as one of the finest twenty-three minutes of music of the year so far, each track fluently proceeding into the next, elaborating on Welch's anguish in equal part. The stand-out, 'Various Storms & Saints', churns away with a budding sorrow that affects the listener deeply as the strings swell in a gloomy escalation. The piece stands out as one of the band's most affecting, well-composed and rousing songs to date, on par with their strongest efforts. 

For fans who seek the unadulterated ferocity of previous records, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful may not suffice. But taken as an album which seeks to accomplish, instrumentally and lyrically, different ideals than its predecessors, it's a remarkably effective work. The track order may prove contradictive at points, but the sheer amount of compositional nuance, intelligence and variation on offer should bode well with both casual and attentive listeners. Some tracks require time to connect; 'Queen Of Peace' wound its way into my heart after upwards of five listens. There are instances where the music proves too conventionally-grounded and orthodox to resonate; 'Ship To Wreck', 'Caught' and 'St Jude' all lack an individuality and distinctiveness to them that defines the vast majority of Florence and the Machine's material. Despite spells of underwhelming concepts and lacking instrumental composition, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful soars above many of its modern pop contemporaries. Welch assaults the ears with her uncompromising vocal inclinations, giving one no option but to revel in her pure and wholesome passion. Some of the most ambitious composition of the band's illustrious career augments the energy evoked by the lead vocalist's rowdy lyricism and unbridled zeal, and thus, an electric vivacity passes from track-to-track. It's not the masterpiece many were equally desiring and anticipating, but it's still an absolutely brilliant work. You can purchase How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.

8.1  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Additional notes about release: the deluxe edition of the album comes with a subsidiary five tracks; three original bonus tracks ('Hiding', 'Make Up Your Mind' and 'Which Witch'), and two demo tracks ('Third Eye' and 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful'). 


Track Listing

1.Ship To Wreck3:55
2.What Kind Of Man3:36
3.How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful5:35
4.Queen of Peace5:07
5.Various Storms & Saints4:09
6.Delilah4:53
7.Long & Lost3:15
8.Caught4:24
9.Third Eye4:20
10.St Jude3:45
11.Mother5:50
Total Album Time:48:46