A Gothic cathedral. A prehistoric cave. The Grand Canyon. That abyss from “Garden State.”
Listening to a Band of Horses album brings these locations to mind. One could easily imagine the band setting up some recording equipment in any of these places and employing the natural acoustics to fashion a ghostly reverb on every one of their tracks.
On “Cease to Begin,” their sophomore effort, Band of Horses continues the formula established on their successful debut album, “Everything All The Time” — guitar heavy indie rock engineered with intense reverb. But with the departure of founding member Mat Brooke, lead singer Ben Bridwell and his compatriots have broadened their musical capabilities, integrating into their progressions synthesizers, pianos and banjos.
The songs develop with lulling introspection — the album opens with “Is There a Ghost,” a transformation from soothing contemplation to full-blown rockout, with Bridwell’s voice piercing the darkness.
Bridwell’s voice has a magical, almost spectral tone, as if he had been lifted out of one of Neil Gaiman’s ethereal graphic novels. But it is pleasing enough in its peculiarity and naiveté to make occasional outbursts of “la di da” (most notably on “Ode to LRC”) feel natural. Bridwell has obviously been working on his vocal chops in the past two years. His voice has become crisper and more melodic, with an emotive and reflective tone that filters through the artificiality of the dense reverb. Let it be said that any other singer reciting his lyrics would appear a rambling fool, but Bridwell demonstrates enough laxity and slurred sincerity to make them seem poetic. As always, the guitars develop a personality of their own, pushing and peaking to a level on par with Bridwell’s vocals. They assert themselves to be the foundation of the music, and rightly so.
No songs distinguish themselves so nicely as “The Funeral” and “The Great Salt Lake” did on “Everything,” but “Cease to Begin” certainly has a greater sense of cohesion and import among the tracks. The most striking song on the album is surely “The General Specific,” a deviation from Band of Horses’ normal repertoire to present a shorter, more laid-back track complete with a steady background of unwavering piano and clapping percussion. The song is a test as to whether Band of Horses can still entertain without the sting of their electric guitars, and the results show that their acoustic upbringing is just as strong.
If “Everything” could be summed up as an autumn evening, then “Cease to Begin” is undoubtedly an autumn night. Although it has no outright triumphs, “Cease to Begin” is a solid sophomore endeavor from a band that will continue to surprise and to probe the unknown.