Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks Of God
It’s a magnificent experience when a band makes a great album. That sense of entering a brand new era, the excitement of diving into the record for the first time not knowing what to expect, pouring over all the little details on subsequent spins. Maybe it will become the soundtrack of your summer, be a comfort blanket in hard times, or a time capsule for your future self. After a time the buzz dies down, and by the time the next record comes around you’re crossing your fingers for another great album in the hope that you can recapture that feeling once more. Occasionally however, you stumble across an album so brilliant that the quality of its follow-up is almost beyond doubt. Sometimes a great album can act as a catalyst, a turning point in a band’s style or approach, and become the moment where all the pieces suddenly fall into place. 2017’s A Black Mile To The Surface was just such a record for Manchester Orchestra. The band were struck by an epiphany and the end result was a release that felt engrossing, energising and inspired. It rewrote the rulebook and set out the blueprint for the future, all while bringing scores of new fans aboard for the ride in the process.
Unsurprisingly the band capitalise on the successes of such a major milestone, and fans of Black Mile will find plenty to love in The Million Masks Of God. The immaculate production, the stunning cinematic approach that links everything together, and the deep dive into themes of life and death are all present and accounted for. It even follows some of the same beats, with the vocal arrangement on opening track ‘Inaudible’ reminiscent of the high points of ‘The Maze’. The album’s lyrics, a little obtuse and cryptic in places, still stay with you, thanks in no small part to the gorgeous melodies. Stunning lines like “In the light you arrive as the curtain closes, Intertwined and attached to his soul, There were not any sermons to speak, There was goodbye and hello” on ‘Obstacle’ resonate deep down and linger at the forefront of your memory even if the precise meaning escapes you. While the affecting line “You’re the one I wanted, want now, want when I am old” from ‘Telepath’ is enough to warm the coldest of hearts. The new album has the same sublime flow and sequencing, with every song thoughtfully placed in the track-listing, and often shifting seamlessly together to form one continuous piece best experienced as a whole. The way the propulsive groove of ‘Keel Timing’ ends with a skittering electronic flourish, which then becomes the foundation for the stunning lead single ‘Bed Head’, is one of the slickest transitions I’ve heard in recent years.
But as the band are quick to remind us with a recurring lyrical leitmotif: “I will not repeat myself”. While Masks is still very much part of the same era, and described by the band as a sister record to Black Mile, in many ways they feel more like yin and yang than mirror images of each other. While its predecessor had plenty of big riffs and a brooding sense of menace bubbling away close to the surface, this release is a far more subdued folk-orientated affair, particularly in the latter half. This stillness only serves to accentuate the fleeting moments of bombast, like the emotive grandeur of ‘Angel Of Death’, the fuzzy solo of ‘Let It Storm’ and the final release of tension on the slow-burning ‘Dinosaur’. But these are the exception to the rule, and as a whole the greatest delights are found in the finer details. Curious that the album inspired by the birth of frontman Andy Hull’s daughter had such darkness to it, a worry about the marks we leave on the next generation, while this album in response to the death of guitarist Robert McDowell’s father feels so light and at peace as it searches for the beauty in the everyday.
There’s certainly no shortage of beauty on The Million Masks Of God; whether it’s the affirmations of love and commitment on the acoustic balladry of ‘Telepath’, the autumnal Nick Drake-esque opening to ‘Let It Storm’, or the dreamy expanse of ‘Way Back’. True to its message the real majesty of the album lies in the little things, like the expressive drum work and stunning little guitar flourishes in the chorus of album highlight ‘Obstacle’. Those looking for big riffs and hooks may leave feeling a little short-changed, and as such this release may take a little longer to grow on you, but those looking for gorgeous melodies will be spoilt for choice. The more understated approach gives Andy Hull’s unique vocals a real chance to shine, and leaves you with a greater appreciation for the band’s impeccable attention to detail. Which record you prefer comes down to a question of personal preference, and at a push I’ll say Black Mile is ahead by a hair’s breadth, but as far as quality is concerned it is simply beyond question. As expected, sheer brilliance from Manchester Orchestra. They’ve tapped into something special and at this point in time it feels like there’s no stopping their winning streak.