Indie rock stalwarts Manchester Orchestra have returned with their fifth album, A Black Mile to the Surface. It follows a several year gap that saw the departure of multi-instrumentalist Chris Freeman, the birth of founding member Andy Hull’s daughter, as well as Hull and lead-guitarist Robert McDowell scoring the Daniel Radcliffe-Paul Dano led film Swiss Army Man. The new record is yet another departure in sonic aesthetic, something the band has done with every release throughout their career.
Starting out in the emo realm with I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child in 2006, it has been a meteoric rise the last 11 years, with the band expanding and advancing their sound every step of the way, as they became one of alternative music’s more beloved acts. Each record has been a new experience that both builds on and pivots away from the previous one, first with supercharged alt.-rock (Mean Everything to Nothing) moving to lush orchestral rock (Simple Math) through to unadulterated hard rock (Cope). And now, Black Mile sees the newly four-piece group embracing ambient indie flair, with intricate production elements gracing these tracks.
Whereas most of the group’s previous material has lent itself more toward loud speakers, these new songs are right at home in a pair of headphones. This is achieved through layers of piano, synth, whispered spoken word and general noise peppered (and nearly buried) throughout; it is a stark contrast to the unblemished, straightforward and heavy hitting distortion of their previous record. The compositions themselves toy more with arrangement, structure and album flow, with many of the tracks bleeding into one another, and even transitioning through different modes within the same song.
Black Mile opens with “The Maze,” a sparse and sprawling tune with echoing ambience and stacks of epic vocals. This immediately gives way into the gliding and catchy “The Gold,” which in turn leaps into the sinister “The Moth.” Later, the melancholy indie folk rock of “The Alien” segues seamlessly into the surprisingly groovy “The Sunshine.” However, their trademark gut-punching rock isn’t cast too far aside, rearing its head on the likes of “Lead, SD,” “The Grocery” and “The Wolf.”
Manchester Orchestra have made a name for themselves by never becoming too strictly defined by any singular label, while simultaneously expanding what it means to be both alternative and rock. Perhaps what their latest effort does best is perfectly capture that which has been present (to some degree) on all of their records: the ability to cohesively contain moments of both delicate beauty and pure visceral energy. For any fan of the group, old or new, A Black Mile to the Surface is an instant classic.