|Album Review: Machester Orchestra − The Million Masks Of God|
The Million Masks Of God
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That moment when you inhale, letting the breath fill up your lungs right before you open your mouth to let the words out—that's a moment that's hard to find on Manchester Orchestra's sixth studio album, The Million Masks Of God. Following the arc of 2017's A Black Mile To The Surface's critically acclaimed success, the Atlanta quartet—lead songwriting duo Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, Tim Very (drums) and Andy Prince (bass)—return to the lush landscapes of what they like to call a "movie album," a cohesive narrative with pieces tied so tightly together, no amount of pulling can yield a healthy whole.
"If 'Black Mile' was this idea of ‘from birth to death,’ this album would really be more about ‘from birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life and exploring what could possibly come next,’” Hull shared in a recent statement. While death plays a figurative and literal role in the album's lyrical context—McDowell's father lost his fight with cancer shortly after recording began—it casts a more healing shadow than expected, offering a small yet potent comfort that even in death, there is still life.
Bolstered by their work on 2016's Swiss Army Man film score, Hull and McDowell's flair for the dramatic is refined further, sharpened by their own life experiences, and then embellished by their chosen narrative—"I arrive / In the form of a radical being/ You arrive / But the story can never be told," Hull sings on "Angel Of Death," the true beginning to the album's consequent journey. Meeting this angel of death leads the band down a rabbit hole of sputtering electronics and forceful piano compositions. With each song seamlessly blending into the next, "Bed Head," one of the album's leading singles and most dynamic pieces found in the 11-track offering, feels like the final tipping point. Up until now, each track has embraced either anger, fear, or anxious anticipation, rolling from one to the next. But at the end, the instrumentals don't bleed into "Annie." They are abruptly stopped, and a snippet of a children's story recited by a young boy is played instead, acting as a natural break before the second half of the album begins.
Working with previous Black Mile collaborator Catherine Marks, as well as bringing in a new face, Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers), for the album's production work has deepened the veterans' propensity for muted dramatics. "Telepath" and "Let It Storm" find strength in the soft rolling piano keys and the pick of an acoustic guitar, while "Obstacle" revels in the subtle yet dominant thuds of the drums. There is a story here—yes—of meeting your fate head-on, walking past to the other side, and wandering about in an almost Alice in Wonderland-like stupor, but as we finally move toward the end, "Way Back" seemingly slows down to a singular moment, a wistful memory that just can't be let go. It's this balance of chaos and sound and emotion finally whittling down to deepened resolve and accrued wisdom that truly marks the album's journey. "There’s the idea of a birth; the beginning of the end, maybe, and the louder, more intense arrangements are placed up front in order to parallel the hectic nature of your early life and the anxiety and stresses of that stage," Hull notes in reference to the album's structure. "And as it continues on there’s more resolve and quiet and focus, almost like you’re laying the listener down—at the very end, everything’s slowing. So once we committed to that idea, it was fascinating for us to figure out how it all fit together. It opened up a lot of possibilities. We weren’t afraid of straying away from a typical structure anymore.”
Manchester Orchestra has been around long enough to know that a band's legacy isn't always preserved by their signature sound. More often than not, it's upheld by the ability to adapt and reinvent. And while The Million Masks Of God isn't a complete pivot, it's rotated enough that long after their departure, fans will always remember meeting an angel, and thinking that it sounded just like home.