Review Summary: It is in the heart, it is in the blood, it’s in the story
Manchester Orchestra’s sixth full-length offering glistens. It’s a monumental semi-concept album that works brilliantly because Andy Hull was made for the limelight. The album is epic in posture, yet sincere and relatable – a poignant magnum opus. If you’ve been following Manchester Orchestra for any significant length of time, then you know this is the standard praise that they always
get. Most bands would take these glowing endorsements and run, but for Hull and co., they’re practically baseline requirements. Aside from Cope
’s obtuse approach, this band has outdone itself at every turn up to and including 2017's A Black Mile to the Surface
. The Million Masks of God
manages to ascend to the same sleek and cinematic cloud as both its predecessor and Simple Math
. This feels like the final piece of some elaborate puzzle that we never knew Manchester Orchestra was working on; the completion of a holy trinity of gleaming, bombastic magnum opuses all of which gaze directly into the life of indie-rock prodigy John Andrew Hull.
Sixteen years and six LPs deep into his career, it’d be easy to overlook the fact that Hull is only thirty-four years old. He’s a father to two as well as a devoted husband, and the band’s recent work is a keen reflection of that. If one thing was made abundantly clear on A Black Mile to the Surface
, it’s that Hull doesn’t believe he deserves such good fortune, half the time pinching himself to see if it’s even real. From the euphoric ‘The Maze’, which was written as a lullaby for his then-newborn daughter Mayzie, to feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders during ‘The Silence’, it was illustrative of a man who’s weathered too many storms becoming suddenly thrust into contentment. That emotional whiplash became A Black Mile to the Surface
: an album which reflects the joys, and especially the fears, of being a first time dad. It was both dark and luminous; all part of its enduring charm.
The Million Masks of God
is very much that record’s sibling. Glossy overdubbed vocals, interspersed snippets of children’s voices, very
specific lyrical callbacks: yup, there’s shared DNA alright – in fact, they could probably be played in succession as side A and side B. If A Black Mile to the Surface
was a slow trudge through the murky depths of a mine shaft, then The Million Masks of God
is the band arriving at that fabled surface, inhaling deeply, and feeling the warmth of the sun graze their cheeks. There’s a sense of arrival here, and while many of the uncertainties of Black Mile
remain, Hull and co. sound better equipped to handle them this time. Take for example that Masks
was written following the death of guitarist Robert McDowell's father, to which he stated in an interview with Guitar World
, "I think it was circumstantial...it is not a gloomy record in my opinion. It's the acceptance that it is something that happens, has happened and will happen to all of us." So much of The Million Masks of God
, in spite of its dark context, looks to silver linings and broader philosophical brushstrokes over getting dragged down by the intensity of the moment.
Perhaps the best indication of this occurs right off the bat, when Manchester Orchestra creates an evolved take on ‘Deer’ and ‘The Maze’, fleshing out the atmosphere of those interludes into a full-blown overture of elation, replete with string serenades and a dramatic rhythm section. It’s the perfect beginning for an album like The Million Masks of God
, which derives its title from the G.K. Chesterton piece Gold Leaves
- a poem which espouses the idea that God, rather than existing as some titanesque deity, can be found "in any human nod", such as a stranger's smile or a song. So much of Masks
feels like a proper extension of this idea, as Hull and co. sing about their wives and children, undying love, and protecting them even if it means sacrificing their own souls (see the breathtaking 'Telepath', where Hull sings a beautiful promise to his wife – "You’re the one I wanted, want now, want when I am old"). In a sense, it's the happiest record that they've ever created because it comes from such a warm and intimate space, even if the weight of that love often still leads them down some pretty dark alleys.
Many of the album's most ominous moments don't come from external stressors, but rather from introspection. Hull's self-flagellation on 'Angel of Death' is rooted in past regrets: "Driving round the sins of both my lives will keep you cold" is a line that hits particularly hard, especially when those menacing synths begin to swell. On ‘Dinosaur’, which begins as a solemn ballad before exploding into an absolute earth-shaker, he returns to the shadow cast by 'The Silence': "Fate, for me, it’s recycled and haunted / So rescue me from raising a lion" falls off the same lyrical tree as "You can go anywhere but you are where you came from." Hull appears perpetually terrified of passing down his own worst traits while keeping patterns of grief and tragedy alive, and he holds himself entirely accountable to break those chains. There's a sense of duty to loved ones, a sentiment echoed on the eerie and thunderous closer 'The Internet', where Andy sings – seemingly pleading with the universe, or perhaps merely wishing peace upon his friend Robert in the wake of tragedy – "All I want’s the weight erased for you."
Structurally and sonically, The Million Masks of God
was intended to be an immersive experience, listened to in sequence and during one sitting. Andy Hull worded it best during an interview with UPROXX
when he stated, "It’s best served as a whole thing. The album’s the song." The way Manchester Orchestra chose to roll out their first two singles, ‘Bed Head’ and ‘Keel Timing’, was a huge omen in this regard, as they released the two bustling electronic-rock tracks in reverse order to reveal how ‘Keel Timing’ was actually the prequel. Within this sort of intricate fabric, the band intentionally weaves in thematic loops: reprising the chorus of 'The Mistake' on both 'Angel of Death' and 'Annie'; using children's voices during and in between tracks; telling the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf
; matching the album's pace and fluidity to mimic A Black Mile to the Surface
(gleeful openers, three lush acoustic tracks in the middle, monumental curtain-calls). If it were any other band, one could accuse them of recycling ideas – but Hull and co. were far too meticulous with their arrangements and recurring themes for The Million Masks of God
to be construed as anything other than an elaborate composition overflowing with hidden Easter Eggs and gratifying, full-circle moments. It’s masterfully composed.
Something this intertwined and extravagant always runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight, but at no stage does Masks
feel overbearing. It's a testament to Manchester Orchestra’s producers; Catherine Marks and Ethan Gruska joined the band's own Andy Hull and Robert McDowell to form a dream team in getting all of these arrangements exactly
right. Recorded one room over from where Bob Dylan was making Rough and Rowdy Ways
, there's also a level of maturity and refinement that's befitting of a band which is now grown up with families of their own. Ultimately, I'm not here to tell you that The Million Masks of God
is the Manchester Orchestra’s “best album to date." Simple Math
, A Black Mile to the Surface
, and The Million Masks of God
are all masterful in their own ways. Simple Math
is more instrumentally impressive than its counterparts, while A Black Mile to the Surface
’s emotional component is unparalleled. Here, the sequencing is more dynamic and the lyrical settings are as intimate as they've ever been. Between these three albums, the time has come to recognize Manchester Orchestra as more than just “a really good emo/indie-rock band." Hull’s voice is iconic, and the whole band never settles for anything less than creating a thrilling and inventive album experience
with each new release. Their body of work speaks for itself at this point: Manchester Orchestra is one of the greatest bands alive right now, and The Million Masks of God
is yet another feather in their cap.