Manchester Orchestra reach new heights on fifth album A Black Mile to the Surface, a powerful, cinematic experience that goes above and beyond what the Atlanta-based band have done before. The group follows up the loud, grimy and grungy Cope with a far more pensive and picturesque endeavour that builds more on their third record, 2011's Simple Math, as well as Cope's acoustic twin sister, Hope — but taken to extraordinary new places.
With songs that are crisp, emotive and hymn-like, Black Mile can prompt admiring comparisons to Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket; it's also probably the closest thing to the little-known yet incredible Clean Head by Oceana, an EP that never got the proper followup it deserved.
Manchester Orchestra wear influences from their friends Kevin Devine, O Brother and The Dear Hunter on their sleeves, not to mention big-name alt-rock figures like Radiohead, Wilco and Alabama Shakes. Lead singer Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell's experience with the soundtrack for the 2016 film Swiss Army Man, meanwhile, surely paved the way for Black Mile's cinematic feel.
The choral beauty of "The Maze" makes for a gripping opener, and "The Gold" seals the deal with gorgeous songwriting, composition and arrangement. Each song is made up of layer upon layer of sounds, textures and echoes that are piled on and stripped away with ease. The band plays to groovy polyrhythms on "The Moth," finds an uneasy balance of melodic dissonance on "Lead, SD" and wraps you up in a dreamlike atmosphere on "The Alien."
Black Mile reaches its peak with "The Grocery," slowly rising from calm verses before cresting and crashing like waves in the choruses up until its final epic crescendo. Meanwhile, "The Parts" makes fabulous use of empty space, with Hull sounding like he's quietly baring his soul from within a giant cavern.
What may be most laudable here is Black Mile's sonic story arc — a story about love, marriage, fatherhood and life's constant way onward — complete with an introduction, rising action, climax and falling action that finally wind down to a conclusive, satisfying end.
For a band as consistent in the alt-rock realm as Manchester Orchestra, a reinvention like this can be a gamble. There's no song on Black Mile like "Wolves at Night" or "April Fool," the kind of high-energy howler fit for an EA Sports game, but their efforts have paid off with an artistic triumph, the kind worth regarding as a creative masterwork among their collection. (Loma Vista)