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Manchester Orchestra - A Black Mile To The Surface (Album Review)

Thursday, 03 August 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Manchester Orchestra have seen their career gradually build like a crescendo across four studio albums and the trend continues on the excellent ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’, the Atlanta band’s new LP.

Covering eclectic ground, the album sees them focus more on the heavier, electric sound of 2014’s ‘Cope’ – particularly during its first half – rather than its acoustic companion ‘Hope’, and there are some sublime touches along the way to mark the collection out as something special.

Following their 2014 releases, singer-songwriter Andy Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell took time out from the band to work on the Daniel Radcliffe film Swiss Army Man, a first time venture that produced a minimalist score.

The process proved reinvigorating for the duo as they realised snippets of sound could carry as much emotional power as full-blown songs.

The focus for ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ then shifted to making “every little second interesting”. With Hull now a father, the record also carries a more mature feel than before. Opening track The Maze successfully blends subtle beginnings, gently booming bass and soft percussion with spine-tingling vocal harmonies across its sub-three minute existence. “It’s amazing,” Hull sings, and it’s difficult to argue.

The Gold then introduces electric guitars, a more complex drum pattern and softly spun vocals for an effort that sounds like a collaboration between the Verve and Mumford & Sons. And, after the Muse-like atmosphere created by The Moth, Lead, SD employs a loud/quiet tactic to produce considerable power.

The Alien - perhaps the finest song here - then swings the pendulum back towards subtle beauty, with its genteel brilliance a striking contrast to what’s gone before. Blissful vocal harmonies form the backbone of a mood-altering gem as Hull pours emotion into lines like “time is going to take you by the hand and leave you here alone”. It segues seamlessly into The Sunshine, a morning after reprise that teases with brushes of electric guitar.

A heavier sound returns in fits and starts on The Grocery as heartfelt words tell of wanting to “feel like my father felt”. The sheer emotional power within the cut is curtailed a little by the lyrically unsatisfying cry of “you believe him or you don’t”, though. The Wolf also fails to follow through on its promise thanks to a chorus that lacks punch, but the anthemic The Mistake ramps it up again. Here the loud/quiet dynamic allows Hull’s vocals – in a similar manner to Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell – to be amplified tenfold during the quieter moments.

The record closes with a neat encapsulation of its competing aims. The Parts features nothing but Hull’s quivering voice and subtle acoustics, but closer The Silence is magnificently grandiose, wielding intense emotional power after a low-key intro.

As Manchester Orchestra’s capabilities seem to grow with every outing, a true modern day classic would appear to be within touching distance. Their talents remain a little under the radar, but it surely cannot remain that way for much longer.

Manchester Orchestra Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat October 21 2017 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy 2
Sun October 22 2017 - GLASGOW Garage
Mon October 23 2017 - LEEDS Church
Tue October 24 2017 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute2 Birmingham
Thu October 26 2017 - LONDON O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Fri October 27 2017 - BRIGHTON Concorde 2
Sat October 28 2017 - BRISTOL SWX Bristol

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