Album Review: Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface

By on Tuesday, 1st August 2017 at 12:00 pm

Everything about this new offering from Manchester Orchestra screams desolation. From the artwork that features a foreboding looking tree, to the reverberant and lonely strum that signals the beginning of the musical content, ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ was created to enchant and devour you.

Before getting into what Manchester Orchestra have managed to concoct this time, let’s take a look at the track listing. Bar one track, they all begin with ‘The Gold’, which instantly signals the idea that each track could contain its own little tale forming a cinematic journey. It’s a specific idea that rings true. Opener ‘The Maze’, featuring the aforementioned echoing strum, breaks Manchester Orchestra down to what they do best: layered tracks featuring new depths of feeling. There’s no power to hook you in; instead, that’s saved for frontman Andy Hull’s delicate voice, which is quite apt, considering the first line of the entire album is “I notice you, when you’re noticing me”. The track carries on through, with the words being joined by a chorus of voices reiterating their sentiments while the instrumentation remains simple: that’s all it needs to be. This is an introduction to the journey Andy and co are going to take you on.


As a flurry of whispering voices see ‘The Maze’ out, from the echo comes a familiar sound to anyone who’s head more than five rock songs in their life. The clicking of drumsticks welcomes a more uptempo and darkly cutting track in ‘The Gold’. The words “Couldn’t really love you anymore, you’ve become my ceiling” keep the emotional sentiments pushing through as the more driving drums push to the pre-chorus where everything falls away, leaving once again Hull’s voice to draw you in. Seemingly building to something even larger, follow-up ‘The Moth’ has an even more haunting fury to it. With each passing track, we appear to be nudging more toward the Manchester Orchestra we’re used too, the one that has a might only they can convey. There’s a slight White Lies-ness to the track: a synth backing, plus more basic instrumentation building towards a larger picture.

Odd-one-out track ‘Lead, SD’ gives us the location for this cinematic journey. Talking about the inspiration for the album, which stems from a photograph of a wintery South Dakota. Such a scene couldn’t feel more appropriate to its related composition. One of the more pleasing and melodically rewarding tracks, it anchors the album to a universe where we’re suppose to get lost, live lives that we wouldn’t otherwise. ‘Lead, SD’ holds more power and might to it, creating so far an album that simply goes from strength to strength.

‘The Alien’ reverts back to the more open and sparse angle of ‘The Maze’. Acoustic guitars and softly repetitive drums take centre stage, which is also the case for ‘The Sunshine’. Letting the stories tell themselves, with the instrumentation sometimes taking a back seat is no bad thing. Of course, not being able to stay away from the behemoth they are, ‘The Grocery’ steams back in. The track makes sure that while you’re lost in the stories elsewhere on the album, you’re reminded of who brought you here in the first place.

The lyrics leave no stone unturned. In the example of ‘The Wolf’, the instrumentation gives them clear context. You feel a palpable urgency when you’re supposed to while the scene plays out around you. ‘The Mistake’ shows this even more clearly. Beginning with an apparent desolate landscape, a bass line slowly goes about its business while synth sounds flirt around it, that is until the urgency kicks in like a heartbeat. When twinned with the opening line of ‘I don’t want to die alone’ – well, you get the picture – you aren’t supposed to fight what the songs are trying to convey. There’s no relation, only explanation.

The final two songs of the album, ‘The Parts’ and ‘The Silence’, both play differing roles. The former places you right back to the start of the record where you feel a strange hopelessness that you want to fight off, but it’s the building grandiosity of ‘The Silence’ that sees the complete journey come to a mildly fulfilling, albeit not a happy, end.

Enjoy this new album from Manchester Orchestra by listening closely. Turn it up loud and pay attention, for you won’t want to miss a single moment.


‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ by Manchester Orchestra is out now via Loma Vista Recordings. To catch up on more of our coverage here on TGTF on the American group, follow this link.

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