Manchester Orchestra show there’s another way.
Label: Loma Vista Recordings
Released: 14th July 2017
Where do you go when you’ve pushed your sound to its limits? That was the conundrum facing Manchester Orchestra as they approached the follow up to 2014’s ‘Cope’, a visceral and relentless rock record and its companion ‘Hope’, featuring the same songs stripped back to their bare bones. Having taken the songs to their furthest extremes, the way forward was not always self-evident.
The impetus came in the form of an invitation to score Swiss Army Man, an independent film starring Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse. Told to use no instruments, lead vocalist Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell had to rethink the way they put music together. The resulting score features looped vocals, layered harmonies and an interpolation of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’.
The influence of their film work is evident as early as the first song on new album ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’. ‘The Maze’ is a pulsating love song for Hull’s young daughter that takes off as a yearning multi-tracked vocal declares “there’s nothing I have when I die that I keep”. Part of Manchester Orchestra’s journey has been Hull’s struggles with his faith and place in the world, and while he may have strayed from traditional religiosity, here he has found a new sense of purpose in his family.
Inspired by a photograph of South Dakota in winter, Hull crafted an album that is part family lullaby-part concept album. The story of the gold miner (trapped “a black mile beneath the surface”) doesn’t command the songs in the way contemporaries The Dear Hunter manage, but at a time when they appeared to have painted themselves into a corner the process has opened up the band’s songwriting and given Manchester Orchestra a fresh perspective.
After the crunching distortion of recent albums, the guitars take a relatively twangy tone, with far more attention paid to vocal arrangements, creating interesting rhythms and ambience. Where before the band combined to create a sledgehammer of sound, here they find the spaces between the instruments and let them breathe. Stripped back to the barest of bones, ‘The Parts’ sees Hull bare his soul so intimately as to make the listener feel intrusive. This is the biggest difference in approach compared to ‘Cope’, and one that initially takes some adjusting to; we’d gotten used to the Orchestra sounding a certain way. After some time away and a change of scene, they’ve shown us there’s another way. Dillon Eastoe