Manchester Orchestra – ‘The Million Masks of God’

By Sean Reid

It has been almost four years since Manchester Orchestra released their stunning, if slightly under-appreciated, fifth album – ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’. For some, the prospect of them delivering a worthy follow-up was going to be a difficult task for the Atlanta group. Nevertheless, Andy Hull and company aim to go above and beyond on ‘The Million Masks of God’.

Much like its predecessor, ‘TMMOG’ is threaded together by a loose narrative concept. The story encompasses a man’s encounter with the angel of death as he’s shown various scenes from his life; both the highs and lows. While fictitious, Manchester Orchestra always bring a vivid humane element to their songs. Hull’s songwriting partner and guitarist, Robert McDowell, lost his father due to cancer in 2019, leading songs such as ‘Let It Storm’ and ‘The Internet’ to explore the reality of the imminence and inevitability of death.

Where ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ thrived on its cinematic presentation, both in its sound and songwriting, ‘Masks’ more often than not takes an intimate route. Early on, ‘Inaudible’ ascends to the heavens with sweeping instrumentation before melting into ‘Angel of Death’. The album’s second track puts the narrative at the forefront; the main character and the Angel Of Death become one as he confronts his sins before finality. Musically, it’s delivered with a sense of familiarity; Hull’s vocals are complemented by layered instrumentation that brilliantly ascends in the chorus, before settling with simplicity.

The pairing of ‘Keel Timing’ and ‘Bad Head’ reflects on growth and changes, finding a purpose to become better in the process. The former is driven by a ticking funk-like rhythm, while the latter is built around electronic drums. Both are neatly constructed and while they don’t stray too far away from MO’s foundations, they still allow layered elements to become effective.

Midway points such as ‘Annie’, ‘Dinosaur’ and ’Telepath’ offer moments of reflection. The latter is a timid, stripped back affair with twinkling acoustics whereas ‘Let It Storm’ begins in a folk-like manner before expanding harmoniously. Light pianos, a ticking synth, and earthy drums complement Hull’s words, providing one of the album’s highlights. Collectively, they emphasise Manchester Orchestra’s ability to captivate you as songwriters. While these tracks, along with later cuts such as the reflective ‘Obstacle’, ride along at an intimate level, they allow McDowell and Hull’s words to become the focus, only to be complemented by intricate, layered instrumentation.

That said, long time fans familiar with Manchester Orchestra’s quiet-loud-louder trait might come away disappointed. The key is to stay open minded, as while ‘Masks’ may not offer sonically stunning buildups, tracks such as ‘Dinosaurs’ do execute it subtly. Its simple start gradually builds to a momentary explosion dominated by drummer Tim Very in an equally as satisfying way as the crescendo of their previous material.

The fittingly titled ‘Way Back’ paints an image of our main character descending back to reality, having been on a journey of reflection. It resonates with warmth, showered by calming harmonies, and glistening piano keys. ‘The Internet’ serves as the album’s slow-burning, cathartic finale – “Do you know what it means, another man that is inside the man of me” sings Hull, accepting the lessons he’s learned. As swirling, atmospheric keys fade into the background, Hull closes the album proclaiming “God, I was right all this time”.

Where ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ specialised in serving bombastic, awe-inspiring moments, ‘TMMOG’ has allowed Manchester Orchestra to hone in on their ability to write a sombre and concise narrative, all the while cunningly pushing themselves as musicians. Along with the help of producers Catherine Marks and Ethan Gruska, ‘Masks’ is littered with layered nuances that make Manchester Orchestra more than your normal indie rock band.

Although it’s unlikely to be held in as high esteem as past records, ‘The Million Masks of God’ continues the ongoing rebirth, and growth, of Manchester Orchestra. Clouded in grief, it has allowed them to be specialist in tightly written albums designed to be digested with repeated listens.

SÊAN REID

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