The Kingsbury Manx has twisted its sound in fresh ways over the years, but Bronze Age is their most adventurous album and their finest set of tunes to date.
On the surface, the Kingsbury Manx is a band built for today's music world. They're part of a thriving local music scene -- in the Triangle of North Carolina -- and they shifted four years ago from releasing albums on local indie label Yep Roc to putting out albums on Odessa, a label run chiefly by band member Paul Finn. It's a common, heartening story we hear of the resilience of local music and smaller markets in the face of ongoing major-label and distribution chaos.
On the other hand, though, the Kingsbury Manx are a throwback to pre-digital days, days of street-level promotion and, mostly, of putting out a record when you're good and ready. This is a band that takes its time, which explains the four years since 2009's excellent Ascenseur Ouvert!. That kind of time is an eternity in the digital age, as our immediate consumption of music has pushed us to demand the kind of output even Waylon Jennings and the link couldn't crank out in their heyday. But Bronze Age, the Kingsbury Manx's latest (and best) record finds no four-year hangover, no signs of stagnation, no signs of being overworked. It falls into none of the traps of an album long worked on and pushes their broad palate of sounds into new and fresh directions at every turn.
Some of the beauties of this record won't be a surprise, but that doesn't make them any less striking. The vocal melodies and harmonies are as impeccable as ever on the pastoral glide of "Glass Eye" or the sunburst shuffle of "Handsprings". And there are the subtle accents you'd expect, link a cascading piano lead or warm horns filling out tracks. But the album also moves into more hard-charging territory, stuff you might not expect from the hazy sway of this band's past work.
They've delved into more rock 'n' roll territory before -- see the guitar breakdown of "Pelz Komet" from Aztec Discipline -- but the turn here is different. If the album is titled after an ancient time, it seems eager to charge into tomorrow, with spacey power-pop numbers that inject the album with an impressive propulsion and volatile energy. Despite the mention of "easy-does-it campfire tunes" on opener "Weird Beard & Black Wolf", the album avoids such quaint pleasantries on "Future Hunter" a beefed-up song swelling with swirls of Moog and Wurlitzer. Later "In the Wurlitzer" takes similar tones into murkier, swampier territory, while "Solely Bavaria" spreads it out into a gauzy expanse of sound that mimics the wandering and exploration in the lyrics. These are all new tangents for the band, and they've of a piece with one another, a new muscle to the band's still sweet sound, but none of them tread the same ground.
In fact, it's that idea of what ground to tread that drives the album. It's easy when a band enters its 14th year to start talking about how their music addresses aging. But that's not Bronze Age. Instead, it's a smaller look at how we move forward day-to-day, how we recover from this mistake, or how we get through this day, or how we take in this experience. There's certainly error and regret floating around, the catharsis found, on "Weird Beard & Black Wolf", in when the narrator "rearrange[s] his face" is a short-lived one. "Handsprings", meanwhile, doesn't deal in the same drama. It admits to small mistakes ("I'll screw up and misspell all the names I knew so well") without giving into them, while still readying to "make some plans for ringing in another year". There's some travel as therapy here -- see "Solely Bavaria" or "Custer's Last" -- but it's also in service of finding perspective. These songs take stock of the past, honors its pleasures and account for its darker moments.
If there's no conclusion, the music itself seems to offer a sort of closure. That closure, though, comes in remaining wide open. Bronze Age looks over its shoulder, but for the last time, readying not to settle but instead for the next future to hunt. No wonder, then, that when these songs don't crunch with newfound rock heft, they churn with murky texture. "Handsprings" unwinds into a slow, boggy breakdown, while mid-album standout "How Things Are Done" stirs up an overcast, bittersweet atmosphere of organ and guitar layers that stretch to some sonic border way in the distance.
These are the new parameters of the Kingsbury Manx. They've honed their sound, twisting it in fresh ways over the years, but Bronze Age is their most adventurous turn yet, and results in their finest set of tunes to date. It's as meticulous and beautiful as past records, but there's an abandon to this sound that serves them well, that hints at the possibility the songs aim for, that reminds us of the hungry sounds of bands pock-marking the city with flyers before you could send emails, that show us the sound of a band doing things in their own terms, terms we, as listeners, can't help but agree to considering what they yield.