In 2017, Manchester Orchestra showed they had undergone a reinvention. 2014’s COPE was built on brash, excessive volume, and it was often so loud that it seemed like frontman Andy Hull and Co. had no room to expand. Realizing that Manchester Orchestra needed a rebirth, the group returned with A Black Mile to the Surface, a record that explores the humanistic journey from beginning to end. It maintains the excitement and intensity of their past work without depending on colossal waveforms.
The Million Masks of God, their latest effort, continues that trajectory. Stylistically speaking, A Black Mile and The Million Masks of God are heavily similar, sharing an emphasis on linear storytelling. In a press release for the album, Hull says that A Black Mile centers on the passage from “birth to death,” whereas The Million Masks of God explores “birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life and exploring what could possibly come next.”
Featuring stellar production from Ethan Gruska, known for his work with recent indie star Phoebe Bridgers, The Million Masks of God is among Manchester Orchestra’s most complete works. “Inaudible” opens the record with a wash of vacant space, and Hull’s overdubbed vocals materialize like an apparition. It slowly yields to a grandiose second half that seems destined for festival grounds. “Way Back” is an immediate highlight, as it showcases the band’s dynamic songwriting capability to craft cathartic moments that feel earned rather than given. It especially displays Hull’s vocal talent, a distinctive stamp that has remained one of the most mesmerizing facets of the band since I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child.
Primary songwriters Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell, as they did on A Black Mile, sought out to create a “movie album” as they did with the score for the 2016 comedy Swiss Army Man. Thematically, The Million Masks of God follows a man who meets an angel of death, and he’s shown several of his life’s occurrences in a montage-esque fashion. During the creative process, McDowell’s father died from cancer, and the songs acquired more of an autobiographical quality. The album’s lyrics feel incredibly personal, with most songs revolving around an unnamed “you” and “I.”
“Telepath” stands out in this way; it’s a gorgeous track that traverses themes such as love (“You’re the one I wanted, want now, want when I am old”) and death (“Everyone I know is slowly falling in the ocean / I don’t want to be the next to row, I never learned to swim”). Other songs can get lost in their attempts at profound metaphors, which sometimes feel like non-sequiturs instead of revelations. “Annie” features the line, “You were a thief, and I was the proof.” “Keel Timing” has the lyric, “I’m a dog, you’re the cops.” These lines don’t overwhelmingly permeate the album, but sometimes these mixed metaphors are forced together, ultimately obscuring their meaning and emotional impact.
There are a small handful of recycled ideas from A Black Mile, as well. Tim Very’s drum pattern on “The Gold’’ is repurposed for “Annie” and “Obstacle.” Hull’s striking belts from “The Moth’’ are eerily similar to those in “Keel Timing.” But it makes sense that this new record derives so much of its sound from its predecessor. This is what Manchester Orchestra sounds like now. Hull and McDowell also discover new ways to use previous concepts. Certain words and phrases reappear throughout as intriguing leitmotifs (one of these, ironically, is “I will not repeat myself”), and they serve as thematic, cohesive threads that hold this album together. The transition from “Keel Timing” into “Bed Head’’ is smooth, too, and it reinforces the notion that The Million Masks of God is designed as a seamless experience.
This is a band that has never shied away from ambition, and it has paid off in some aspects while falling short in others. Naming their closing track “The Internet” is a bold choice, for example. Even this album’s title is lofty, but this bombast largely works in Manchester Orchestra’s favor because it’s well-balanced with solid songwriting.They’ve maintained the style laid out on A Black Mile but imbued it with more splendor. The press release even says that The Million Masks of God can be seen as a sophomore album following their rebirth after A Black Mile, and frankly, that point has some merit. Following the overblown COPE, it seemed unclear where the band would go next. But with The Million Masks of God, Manchester Orchestra prove that they’ve found their footing.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, The Ringer, SPIN, and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.