A Black Mile to the Surface
Album Review by Brent Smith
Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, indie rock group Manchester Orchestra hardly needs an introduction. They've been playing their unique brand of emo-infused indie rock for almost 13 years now and with heavy aplomb and a complexity not often seen among their contemporaries.
Frontman Andy Hull has proven himself a very busy man also helming the likes of concept heavy folk group Right Away, Great Captain and his more poppy and experimental supergroup Bad Books. Hull and company have released two of the genres most respectable and heartfelt albums I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing, they followed curiously with 2011's masterpiece Simple Math. On paper, Simple Math shouldn't have worked as well as it did, sitting somewhere between being catchy enough to pass as pop and lyrically introspective enough to alienate listeners who weren't already into the group, but somehow it just worked.
Following 2014’s disappointing (but still immensely listenable) COPE, the group comes back in full force with A Black Mile To The Surface, something a little more reminiscent of 2011's masterpiece Simple Math. It comes as a surprise after COPE being a much heavier outing, complete with crunchy guitars and distressed vocals. To see Hull and company dial their sound back into something a little more restrained and less catchy with this new album is actually quite refreshing. Here we see Hull trade out shouty vocals for something a little more concise and clean but perhaps less accessible than previous works. It may be difficult for some to break through something so deliberate and full of moving parts, but when it finally does click, it is easily their most rewarding and smartest album to date. Less is more seems to be a running theme throughout the album. The album absolutely begs for headphone listening as it is full of little audio cues and hidden sounds that enhance the experience.
To say that A Black Mile To The Surface is just an extension of Simple Math's complex and unique sound would be dismissive as it becomes apparent early that this album stands on its own, separating itself just enough from previous outings to sound unlike anything else they've released to date. Earthy and American soundscapes dot the album, creating something warm and familiar but also eerie and lived-in.
The album still showcases the band’s ever-present fortes that explode with emotion while exploring new instrumental sounds in “Lead, SD,” “The Alien,” and “The Wolf." “The Maze” gives listeners a reminiscent taste of Manchester Orchestra’s repertoire of echoing vocals and drawn out instrumental notes that create the illusion of losing one’s self into the music. Besides words that speak to the darker, secretive sides of people, the music in A Black Mile To The Surface delivers a cinematic, self-projected series of delusions of grandeur when listening plugged into earbuds, walking alone.
In “The Gold” the band explores how there are multiple sides to perception with the words “I believed you were crazy/You believed you loved me/You and me, we're a daydrink/So lose your faith in me…” while continuously providing almost hard-to-hear honest words that we are able to relate to. While the band often has a story per song, the album also sets a continuing sound and story throughout its entirety, which makes it both a complex and unified production. A Black Mile To The Surface is something kind of unexpected and remarkably personal, and that's exactly what one could hope at this point in the band's career.