Manchester Orchestra's 'The Million Masks of God' Plays Out Like a Life Lived from Beginning to End

Manchester Orchestra's 'The Million Masks of God' Plays Out Like a Life Lived from Beginning to End
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Manchester Orchestra began a new era of their career with 2017's A Black Mile to the Surface. It was an atmospheric, cinematic work that recast the grungy, pop-compatible Atlanta alt-rockers as pensive storytellers whose music could reach profound depths and triumphant heights. That has now proven to be not an ambitious, outlying experiment, but the new template for Manchester Orchestra records going forward. With its philosophical concept and grandiose production, The Million Masks of God attempts to build on its predecessor's dramatic theatre.

The songwriting duo of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell appear to have permanently reframed their approach, influenced especially by their experience in film scoring. In contrast to the electrifying guitar-rock of Manchester Orchestra's first four albums, their recent work is far more focused on textures, atmospheres and abstract storytelling. The Million Masks of God is a loose dramatization of a man's encounter with the "Angel of Death," who shows him a variety of scenes from the entirety of his life. While the band was working on the album, its concept took on deeper meaning when McDowell's father died of cancer. The group spends these 11 songs confronting their mortality, processing their grief and examining their faith, and the record plays out like a life lived from beginning to end; it starts with a rush of vitality and is filled with moments both quiet and chaotic before eventually slowing to its final breath.

Helmed by an accomplished production team of Catherine Marks (the Killers, PJ Harvey) and Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers), Million Masks is extremely dynamic, a meticulously designed sonic field full of peaks and valleys and a variety of landscapes in between. In "Obstacle," the twinkle of an acoustic guitar works its way into a big, rousing crescendo, finding them halfway between Mumford & Sons and Band of Horses. In "Annie," the slithering prog-rock of the verses and the light-as-a-feather harmonies evoke both Tool and Simon & Garfunkel. Manchester Orchestra are masters of dynamics, rising and falling with finely tuned intuition.

Sometimes, the songs are so enveloped in multi-layered arrangements and soundscapes that you can barely hear the rock band underneath. There's the spacey, densely echoing "Inaudible," the haunting, withdrawn intensity of "Dinosaur," the captivating emptiness of "The Internet," and the warm, tender folk songs "Telepath" and "Way Back." Other times, the band's overdriven guitars and rhythmic rumble are so out-in-front that there's no doubt they're still the rockers they've always been, as on the atmospheric grunge of "Angel of Death," the plucky groove of "Keel Timing," and the electronic beat of "Bed Head." These are songs that put them in the arena of Silversun Pickups and My Morning Jacket but also dangerously close to Muse — a direction you might justifiably consider if you're writing dystopian sci-fi rock, but perhaps not so much if you're portraying a godly man's deepest ruminations on life, love and faith. 

Manchester Orchestra's sixth album is a bit difficult to assess. There isn't a song as gripping as Black Mile's exultantly hymnal "The Maze" or darkly powerful "The Gold," but there are plenty of interesting ideas and a vision that seems almost fully realized. The music can be too knotty and scattered and the lyrics too opaque and impenetrable to reflect the album's weighty themes. The Million Masks of God goes for an emotional gut-punch, but it's a bit light on impact. Much of the power of this music comes from the mind when it ought to come from the soul. (Loma Vista)