When you're chasing sonic perfection, obsessing over every last drum snare and performing countless takes of each vocal in an attempt to bottle lightning, how do you know when to finally hit the 'Stop' button and turn your work over to the outside world?
"Art is never finished, merely abandoned." Often wrongly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, this observation (or a version of it) was first made by French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry. Albeit paraphrased by producer Ethan Gruska, those words were a comfort when putting the finishing touches on 'The Million Masks of God', Manchester Orchestra's meticulously plotted sixth album. "There's a little bit of that," suggests Andy Hull from behind his characteristic fuzz of facial hair. "But this actually probably for the first time ever felt like it was finished, which was great.
"We had tried everything over and over again on every step. It was more about refining how it all was going to fit together, how it's a narrative," Andy explains of the decision to put the lid on their latest opus around a year ago, even as the opportunity to release and it promote in their usual fashion rapidly receded from view. Having conducted press for their previous release over pints at London's Lexington, we have to settle for a split-screen video call from MO's base in Atlanta, Georgia.
Like its predecessor, the 2017 reinvention 'A Black Mile to the Surface', the new collection was again produced by Andy, guitarist Robert McDowell and the in-demand Catherine Marks (Alex Lahey, Frank Carter, The Killers). Once again, the trio stretch the band's sound to its outer edges, layering vocals, tinkering with drum microphones and panning guitars wider and wider. Is this a continuation of the same project, then?
"We didn't want it to sound like 'Black Mile'," Andy counters. "We wanted it to feel different, a bit more futuristic, and we wanted to explore different avenues sonically. It's a wide record, and we liked leaning into that and sequencing it in a way that I don't think we would have sequenced a record before where it really is like a journey that you're listening to, and hopefully, the listener almost feels like they're being laid down at the end of their experience.
"It was cool to feel the freedom to explore all that and have [heavier] songs like 'Bed Head' or 'Keel Timing' exist on a record with a [more stripped back] song like 'Telepath' or 'Way Back'. They all felt connected as one thing, and we're not really ones to shy away from trying out something different."
That experimentation has the band, filled out by bassist Andy Prince and drummer Tim Very, moving from the choral intro to the towering doom of 'Angel of Death' before taking a half-time breather with 'Annie' and 'Let It Storm' taking the volume down. It can be an overwhelming first listen, but after a few spins of the record, these pieces start to fall into place, and you'll hear the instrumental flourishes that doubtless took hours of haggling over the position of various sliders on Marks' mixing desk.
The varied terrain traversed across 'Masks' eleven songs are a far cry from the band that released 'Cope' in 2014, a squalling half-hour of grunge guitars layered ad infinitum after what Andy admits was too much time demoing tracks. Subsequently releasing a stripped-down version, 'Hope', of the same songs and then providing an a capella soundtrack to bizarre Daniel Radcliffe film Swiss Army Man, their past two Manchester Orchestra albums have seen the duo find more space in their increasingly proggy rock beyond cranking their Telecasters to 11.
"Thematically," Andy later admits, there are clear similarities with 'Black Mile'. "It certainly was tied into the ideas of generational effect and the circle of life and all that stuff I just seem to be obsessed with when I'm writing now. As a narrative theme, it was an idea of snapshots and detailed moments [in a life].
"'Black Mile' is a record that takes place in South Dakota in a small mining town. But also it doesn't at all. In the same way, this record is about a guy talking to the Angel of Death, and also, it isn't," Andy explains. "It helps me to get a little deeper and find out my actual feelings and emotions and thoughts on things that are significant and hard. When I can borrow the shoes of another character, it allows me to dig deeper into my own psyche about issues that probably would be too raw to just sit and try to write about."
The lyrics Andy was writing about life, death and the beyond were thrown into sharp relief when during recording Rob's father passed away having suffered with a prolonged illness. "I feel like [making this album] brought us together emotionally in a way…" Rob says. "You can't fix it; you can just be there with the other person and so being there, the other guys crying with me. Just your brothers being there. That's the type of stuff that then when you carry that into an album, you have a closeness with them and a trust with them that allows a vulnerability to be open creatively because you've shared the worst parts of your life already with them."
"All of my intention for writing about this stuff was me also trying to grieve and go through a process," Andy continues. "'Cause I was also very close with Rob's father, and the album was hopefully honouring this man who had provided so much for us. It was difficult to dance that line, but I think we had one of the more powerful moments in our relationship. We were in LA, and it finally came up, when we were putting the record on. We were crying and hugging each other, and then once it was there, it just all felt like the right thing to do."
"For me, it was a way to get through whatever was happening in my head," Rob explains. "At least I know that what I'm doing right now has a purpose and a reason, so it was the line that I could pull myself through the quicksand to keep from unravelling."
As the lineup of the band has changed over the years, Rob has been the only constant presence in Manchester Orchestra since Andy started the project in his bedroom in 2004. "The first time my mom heard the record, she's like, 'I think you've made a love letter to Rob'," Andy remembers. "That's what this record feels like to me; I'm here for my brother."
The album's emotional crux comes in the form of 'Obstacle', as an innocent, nursery rhyme melody wanders hospital corridors, birth and death lurking behind different doors. Midway through, acoustic guitars give way to an amped-up explosion recalling the group's early records. "That song was written the night before my son was born. I knew I was going to meet this dude and I… I wasn't thrilled, which is an awful thing to say!" Andy laughs. "You get through that first baby because you're just absolutely blown away at the wonder and miracle of life. And then the second baby, this is very hard, and I've also been through this already. I was just sort of trying to grapple with those feelings of, 'man, what kind of monster am I that I'm not feeling the same way I was feeling before my first child?' Good news, I do really seem to love him now."
Nowadays a proper family affair, the record features throughout snippets of Andy's daughter telling the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, something he feels ties the whole record together in its examination of birth, family and grief. "I wanted that to reflect a theme that's happening throughout the record, the innocence going away. It's welcome to the world, and also I'm so sorry for what you're about to experience in your life. There's going to be a whole lot of great stuff. There's going to be a whole lot of bad stuff. The idea is my daughter putting the pieces together about consequences; that story is about a boy who has a consequence for doing the wrong thing."
Andy's fascination with death and the grisly moments of life are nothing new; on Manchester Orchestra's very first EP, he was having visions that "When my dad died/The worms ate out both his eyes/His soul flew right up in the sky/Cried myself to sleep". Accompanying the weighty lyrics, his bandmates have allowed him to evolve the band's sound from bedroom indie, grunged-up howling and now a second album of expansive, shimmering prog-rock, all while carrying a devoted fanbase with them largely intact.
"We never want to make Part II of something," Andy insists. "It always needs to be different, and we certainly wanted to top 'Black Mile' and do something different with it." Whether 'The Million Masks of God' beats the acclaim and fan-fervour of its predecessor, only time will tell. Andy and Rob have exceeded its scope, intricacy and its attention to detail. If all art must be abandoned by its creator, lest they forever be consumed by the pursuit of perfection, Manchester Orchestra walked away from the studio having created a challenging piece that takes listeners to the extremes of the band's sound. "I feel like this is a year where people are looking for healing, and this record to me is about healing." The past year has been tough, hard to predict, and harder still to have any feeling of control. 'The Million Masks of God' doesn't claim to offer all the answers, but for the band, it has been a light in the darkness.
Taken from the May issue of Upset. Manchester Orchestra's album 'The Million Masks of God' is out 30th April.
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