I guess modern problems require modern solutions.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many bands have struggled to make ends meet. Without the ability to perform live, they’ve turned to platforms like Patreon to build a subscription-based fandom. Another more frequent occurrence is recording and streaming live shows. Even then, without the energy of the crowd, it’s nearly impossible to replicate the level of excitement that folks go into such an experience seeking. It’s not an easy time to be an artist – but in spite of the challenges, most of them are persevering. It’s a testament to the passion and dedication they pour into their work. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
One band still finding a way is Manchester Orchestra. As one of indie-rock’s more well-known acts, they’ve released five LPs to date including the wildly popular Mean Everything to Nothing and the sleek/grandiose Simple Math – but perhaps none were better than A Black Mile to the Surface, their 2017 emotional magnum opus. Manchester Orchestra Presents: A Black Mile To The Surface (The Concert Film) serves three different purposes. The first is to provide longtime fans with a glimmer of hope during dark times through a live adaptation of Black Mile in its entirety. Secondly, it is to usher out the Black Mile era in a special, memorable way befitting of the four years that fans spent both enjoying it and healing with it. Finally, it teases the release of their new record The Million Masks of God, due 4/30/2021.
If you are a fan of Manchester Orchestra, or are simply looking for an escape from the same isolation routines, then I encourage you to set aside one hour and enjoy the experience that the band has laid before us here. Manchester Orchestra Presents: A Black Mile To The Surface (The Concert Film) is a wonderful live event, even if it comes to us via the quirks and exceptions required of a pandemic era:
The setlist for this show is identical to the track order for A Black Mile to the Surface – it is meant to be a cohesive experience, much like the album itself. The only (welcome) interruptions come by way of clips showing the band in the studio writing The Million Masks of God, as well as some cryptic messages that at various times flash across the screen or are projected onto the stage where the band is playing. Opening with ‘The Maze’, Manchester Orchestra immediately establishes an intimate setting. Hull’s voice is ever-poignant, and it’s also neat to see Robert McDowell providing backing vocals. It doesn’t quite reach those heavenly high pitches that the song does on record, but the band adjusts for that by making a bigger splash on the instrumental side – cymbals clashing like waves while the drumming is propulsive and emphatic, as if driving home a series of well-made points. Their rendition of ‘The Gold’ is also very competent – it’s a little clinical for my liking as it would have been nice to really see Hull lose himself in the performance more, but it’s also a bit difficult to go wild on a small stage surrounded by all that equipment. It’s after ‘The Gold’ that we receive our first teaser for The Million Masks of God, which is little more than some of the upcoming album’s secondary artwork and a bunch of words floating across the stage (which I’m now privy to, but not at liberty to divulge their meaning!)
This is when you can really feel the energy beginning to mount. On the heels of that enigmatic tease, they burst right into the synth keys which drive ‘The Moth’ – and as the lights on the stage flicker with those haunting messages floating all around, it’s one of those oh shit moments when you realize something is about to go down and that this isn’t just a routine live-streamed performance. The energy the band brings on ‘The Moth’ is incredible – by the end you can see everyone getting into it, strumming harder, jumping up and down, closing their eyes – to this point, it’s easily the most dynamic of the songs performed. After another Million Masks of God foreshadow is flashed across the screen, they enter into ‘Lead, SD’ – where Hull sings with such intensity and passion that it almost looks like his eyes are about to pop out of his skull. While the chorus might have sounded more sweeping with McDowell pitching in to mimic the kind of layering that we heard on record, it’s still a very organic performance. The conclusion of ‘Lead, SD’ immediately cuts to a scene of the entire band working with producer Catherine Marks in the studio. We hear miniature clips of ‘Bed Head’ and another to-be-revealed track, and by this point it’s apparent that Manchester Orchestra is able to simulate the energy of a typical live setting by building hype for their new album. In-between so many of these tracks, we’re offered a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come before flashing back to the band on-stage. It works surprisingly well, as the announcements and teasers are just as interesting as the performance itself.
Manchester Orchestra Presents: A Black Mile To The Surface (The Concert Film) bends away from the high-amperage of ‘The Moth’ and ‘Lead, SD’ with their lush and brilliant execution of ‘The Alien’. Hull sings the song on-pitch melodically, the acoustics are immaculate, and the pianos ring out with a combination of splendor and elegance which tops that of the studio version. The entire thing – even down the way that those miniature circular lights rotate about the stage like UFOs or distant galaxies – is absolutely sublime. It’s visually and sonically breathtaking, and easily the best moment of the show up to that point. Luckily, we don’t have to wait long for Manchester Orchestra to outdo themselves again – they seamlessly blend ‘The Alien’ into ‘The Sunshine’, a performance that will make you wonder why in the world the studio version of the song even exists. Their performance of ‘The Sunshine’ is so much more complex and energetic, and they end the moment with an epic breakdown that is unexpected because it’s entirely absent on the original recording. You’ll find yourself in awe over this particular take; it’s one of the live performance’s absolute pinnacles. That energy bleeds right into ‘The Grocery’, and it’s clear that the band meant to make the ‘Alien’/’Sunshine’/’Grocery’ trinity the centerpiece of the experience. They succeed in wildly creative and innovative ways.
As we cross over into the back end of the concert film, we’re again treated to several different clips of Manchester Orchestra in the studio putting together little moments from various songs. It was wise not to interrupt the flow of ‘The Alien’/’The Sunshine’/’The Grocery’, and the teaser is perfectly placed in-between that remarkably successful sequence and ‘The Wolf’. Hull’s performance of ‘The Wolf’ soars with the same sense of urgency that it does on record, and again the words projected on-stage which float across his shirt add another dimension of intrigue. As with the opener ‘The Maze’, Tim Very’s drumming noticeably makes the moment what it is – adding a majestic swell to complement Hull’s voice. The ending to ‘The Wolf’ is also noticeably more intense than the original version – the drumming faster, the electric guitars shredded – making for an emphatic conclusion. ‘The Mistake’ is executed to perfection, sounding every bit the part of the late-album melodic gem that it is (even down to that elongated “wooo” which always sort of broke the ice amid some very tense topics). The penultimate ‘The Parts’ is just the acoustic reprieve needed to set the stage for ‘The Silence’, which brings down the house exactly like you’d hope. With an illuminated church illustration of Jesus Christ behind him – notably holding two children (Andy has two kids) – Hull delivers a towering performance about the terror of being a dad. There are a lot of subtle things about this performance that send a shiver up your spine – like the fact that the image of Jesus suddenly is blacked out and disappears during the crescendo when Hull sings, “There is nothing you keep there is only your reflection.” The song has numerous interpretations, but that particular line has always seemed to imply a callback to ‘The Maze’ when he sings, “There is nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep” – in this case, he’s saying you can still hold on to your reflection: your children, how you treated others during your life, and ultimately how you will be remembered. It’s a beautiful but chilling sentiment, and you can tell that the entire band understands what this moment means to Hull – they look entirely zoned in, eyes either closed or intently focused on their instruments to deliver an absolute knock-out blow of a finale. As ‘The Silence’ fades out, the entire stage becomes illuminated with the words “The Million Masks of God”, and we’re whisked away one final time to the ultimate teaser. With flashing images almost too rapid and juxtaposed to follow, references are made to the lead single ‘Bed Head’, The Million Masks of God, and even certain lyrical passages from the upcoming record. And with that, Manchester Orchestra Presents: A Black Mile To The Surface (The Concert Film) draws to a close.
This is a remarkable live experience when you factor in just how difficult it is to create a wholly engaging “streamed” performance with zero audience members. It is dynamic, highly energetic, and features numerous surprises (of both the song re-structuring and upcoming album teaser variety). In the end we’re left with what might be the gold standard for pandemic era live entertainment. Admittedly, it does seem to take a while for the band to get going, but by the time ‘The Moth’ comes along they’ve pretty much found their stride – and the experience only becomes more creative and lively the longer it continues. At a time when few acts are able to live out their touring dreams, Manchester Orchestra Presents: A Black Mile To The Surface (The Concert Film) serves as something they can look to emulate. For the fans it’s the ultimate adieu to A Black Mile to the Surface, and as we await The Million Masks of God, we can do so with excitement and a knowing grin because whatever Manchester Orchestra has up their sleeves, they always seem to make it worth our while.
Listen to ‘Keel Timing’ and ‘Bed Head’ in order: