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Georgia's Manchester Orchestra deliver one of their most balanced and mature efforts with their fifth full-length album, 2017's measured A Black Mile to the Surface. Technically, the album is a follow-up to the group's 2014 return to electric guitar-based hardcore, Cope, and companion piece Hope, which featured acoustic reworkings of songs from Cope. That said, A Black Mile to the Surface also follows on the heels of lead singer Andy Hull and keyboardist Robert McDowell's much lauded and experimental soundtrack to the 2016 dark comedy-drama Swiss Army Man. That album found them crafting entirely vocal-based arrangements that evoked both the layered harmonies of the Beach Boys and the minimalist classical compositions of Steve Reich. Rather than separate any of these disparate sounds this time out, on A Black Mile to the Surface they offer a modicum of all three, shifting from intensely played, post-hardcore-influenced rock to ruminative acoustic balladry and layered soundscapes, often within the same song. That they do so with the assuredness of a veteran band coming into its own speaks to their dedication and hard-won maturity since debuting over a decade ago. Helping to achieve this balance is producer Catherine Marks (PJ Harvey, Coheed and Cambria, Interpol), who, along with Hull and McDowell, brings a warmth and sophistication to even the most downbeat of the album's tracks. Hull once again proffers up a set of deeply emotive and literate songs that are well served by the album's overall balanced tone. Barring the Pixies-esque "Lead, SD," every song here, like the twangy, ruminate folk-rocker "The Gold," the atmospheric, piano-laden "The Alien," and the swirling, poignant, folk-inflected "The Grocery," have simple, direct titles. It's as if Hull and his band have crafted an album of symbolic sculptures instead of songs. Fittingly, they find him toiling with myriad personal and relationship issues, like confronting fatherhood on "The Maze," and generally trying to figure out his place as an adult in the world. On "The Grocery," he sings "Want to hold a light to paradigm and strip it to its feet/I want to feel the way my father felt, is it easier for me?" Based on the nuanced opacity of these lyrics and the artful moodiness of the music, the answer will likely remain an elusive puzzle for listeners to ponder. Thankfully, Manchester Orchestra have made an album well worth pondering over.
Performance CreditsManchester Orchestra Primary Artist
Andy Prince Bass,Group Member
Andy Hull Guitar,Vocals,Group Member
Robert McDowell Guitar,Keyboards,Background Vocals,Group Member
Tim Very Drums,Group Member
Technical CreditsDan Hannon Additional Production
John Congleton Additional Production
Catherine Marks Producer,Engineer
Manchester Orchestra Composer
Andy Hull Composer,Producer
Jonathan Wilson Additional Production
Robert McDowell Producer,Engineer
Brian Manley Layout