Atlantean indie-rock stalwarts Manchester Orchestra follow up 2014’s COPE with a rebirth of sorts, as singer/lyricist Andy Hull comes to terms with parenthood, which ultimately leaves them sounding very much like Manchester Orchestra, albeit an upgraded version.
So, often stripped back, on its gentler moments A Black Mile To The Surface is reminiscent of Lake Poets but when it soars it reaches progressive plateaus, forested mountains and snow tipped peaks others can only hope for and is all the more impressive for it. ‘The Maze’ begins almost acapella (a nod to Swiss Army Man, the film the band previously scored sans any instrumentation) before a sparse piano, subtle choir and gentle electronica really set the tone for a remarkable album that may be, initially, easy to pigeonhole but is like no other you will hear this year. Meanwhile ‘The Gold’ is rockier and the simplest juxtaposition sound-wise, the Mumfords comparisons may prove an annoyance when, in fact, Manchester Orchestra may finally be evolving into the Mumfords that it’s ok to fall in love with. But that is sloppy disservice to such a complex, enjoyable and rewarding album; the holy trinity of indie rock.
‘Lead, SD’ (the only song without the definitive prefix. I guess you would have to ask them…) is hauntingly quiet and almost demonically loud and on subsequent listens you realise that the paternal anxiety in the lyrics is actually the bud the rest of the album blossoms from and it’s quickly followed by binary piece, ‘The Alien’, about a boy with no ears. But don’t let the surrealism put you off, this is serious, beautiful stuff for people still reeling from the Maccabees split and continues too in ‘The Sunshine’’s folky, lilting loveliness and the sublime sentimental pleas of ‘The Grocery’ in an incredible mid-section to this album.
There are stories here too; three brothers, an abandoned wife and child, a mysterious journey through the depths of a deep mine, a narrative of twists and turns, recurring characters, alternating timelines but the essence of ABMTTS is the subtle similarities within the metre of the music, not just directly in the radio static that drops in and out throughout but in the lyrical themes of familial loneliness and a guitar motif that crops up in a number of songs. In fact, the initial creative spark came from a single photograph of a South Dakota snow fall so while not principally a concept album it is, and the cute metaphor is not lost on me, a collection of darkly interwoven snapshots.
But this is all just bumming around or an extended hors d’oeuvre (albeit A+ bumming and Michelin Starred appetising) before closer, ‘The Silence’, an absolutely stunning slice of indie-rock that on a level playing field would top all the Track of the Year lists this year. The vocal experimenting, layering of melodies, depth of compositions and dimensional approach to recording (whatever that is, Catherine Marks and John Congleton both worked behind the scenes so it was always going to be a ‘sonic’ album) throughout ABMTTS should propel them to National type adoration while retaining their War On Drugs relevance and credibility but on ‘The Silence’ it’s pushed to its very limits. The band’s acceptance of natural reverb as a literal reflection of the music is directly and specifically embodied in the lyrics (“there is nothing you keep, there is only a reflection”) as the song simultaneously crashes and sails to its impossible finale. Absolutely class.
A Black Mile To The Surface is released on 28th July through Loma Vista Recordings.