Manchester Orchestra: A Black Mile to the Surface

Photo: Mike Dempsey (Loma Vista)

On their latest album, Manchester Orchestra show that gloominess pays off as long as you've got good songs and smart arrangements.

Manchester Orchestra

A Black Mile to the Surface

Label: Loma Vista Recordings
US Release Date: 2017-07-21

They may hail from Atlanta, Georgia, but Manchester Orchestra’s British indie rock influences -- certainly not limited to their band name -- spill out all over their fifth full-length album. Their sound doesn’t derive from the airtight punk influences of decades past; rather, there’s an anthemic, widescreen feel to nearly every song on A Black Mile to the Surface, inviting comparisons to altruistic, mid-period U2, or even Coldplay.

Any mention of those two bands is sure to incite more than one roll of the eyes as Bono, and Chris Martin’s groups are often perceived as self-important and maybe just a tad bombastic. But Manchester Orchestra -- singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Hull, lead guitarist Robert McDowell, bassist Andy Prince, and drummer Tim Very -- bring a great deal of skill and vitality to the formula. This is a band that comes off as deadly serious, but the execution is refreshing and deeply satisfying.

Their guitar-based indie rock is peppered with a tasteful helping of keyboards and the occasional orchestration. Opening track “The Maze” is even given a heavy gospel flavor, as Hull’s lyrics -- “Somebody said it’s unspeakable love / Well, you don’t believe I can speak well at all / You’re a maze to me” -- are countered with an earnest, spine-tingling choir response. “You lift that burden off of me,” they repeat over and over, as the song’s ambient pulse cushions the blow, sounding like it was dropped in from a classic Eno/Lanois production.

The initial single “The Gold” tumbles along with an intricate, syncopated beat, occasionally stopping dead in its tracks as Hull emotes the hook: “I believed you were crazy / You believe that you loved me.” Elsewhere a dark, almost apocalyptic feel invades songs like “The Moth", where the intertwining guitar and drums loom over the vocals, creating an urgent texture. “There’s a way out / There’s a way in,” Hull repeats insistently.

The band occasionally dials down the dramatics in favor of more low-key arrangements, such as on “The Alien", where the heavy surrealism of the lyrics is paired up with indie folk tropes like muted drums and a heavy acoustic vibe. The song wraps up with a dream-like coda that somehow evokes the hypnotic harmonies of Elliott Smith. Clearly, Manchester Orchestra have their influences cut out for them. “The Part", one of the album’s eloquent highlights, is all heavily reverberated vocals accompanied by stark acoustic guitar. The song’s chorus (“I still want to know each part of you”) is simple and unadorned but underscores the deep level of emotion the band is working with.

But when the band does choose to engage in an ebb and flow of dynamics, the results are often stunning. The booming, intricate drum pattern that runs through “The Wolf” provides just the right pulse, pausing occasionally for the refrain (“There was you and me and nothing in between / It’s right and wrong, goes on and on and on”) to make its appearance with complete clarity, accompanied by a gurgling Moog synth. “Lead, SD” employs disembodied dialogue samples, gradually building guitars and air-raid synths to create a dramatic atmosphere, but the song also drops down to practically a whisper, moving back and forth numerous times during the song’s five-minute run. In that relatively short span of time, the band puts the listener through the ringer.

The album’s closer, “The Silence", is a serviceable epic that combines melancholic guitar figures, tasteful keyboard washes, and yet another larger-than-life drum pattern. “But you, amplified in the silence / Justified in the way you make me bruise,” Hull sings. A Black Mile to the Surface may get knocked for being a downer, an almost self-conscious one. But for all the melodrama, there’s plenty of smart arrangements and well-crafted musical ideas that give the album plenty of gravitas. Part of me wants to tell these guys to cheer up, but they’re so good at being gloomy.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.