Throughout their career, Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra have had a knack for exploring the more nuanced moments of life in startling and poignant ways. On 2017’s ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’, the band wove together a concept based around a South Dakotan mining town with the real-life realisations of frontman Andy Hull’s mortality. On newest album ‘The Million Masks of God’, meanwhile, they’re exploring a similarly unusual trick: its initial abstract beginnings soon giving way to a much more real narrative.
Picking up loosely where ‘Black Mile…’ left off, the quartet’s sixth album meets its central character towards the end of his life, as he comes face to face with the angel of death. The record then travels through a series of snapshots of his life, as he’s given the opportunity to reflect on both what has been and what may be to come.
“I think I’m just becoming more and more obsessed with the idea of generational impact,” Andy offers up, on a Zoom call alongside bandmate Robert McDowell. “All those that came before, all those that come after, and what role we play in that, and how that can be a negative role or a positive one.” It’s an unsurprising train of thought, perhaps, considering the changes that were taking place in the band’s personal lives at the time. “It was definitely a bit of a new place in life for us, and as a band,” confirms Robert, “with more and more kids coming in, and other things happening in life. But that, to me, brings new excitement and creativity because you have new avenues to go down.”
Yet, much like the way in which the birth of Andy’s daughter shifted the narrative on their previous record, this album would soon go on to be shaped by the loss of guitarist Robert’s father, who passed away after a battle with cancer during the writing process.
“Like Rob says,” explains Andy, “there was new, innocent life being sprouted all around us, and there was just love everywhere. But then that was mixed with Rob and all of us going through the painful process of his dad dying. It was sort of a very obvious mirror image of life’s experience from both sides.”
“It’s a wonderful thing to have creative partners who are going through the shit with you.”
— Robert McDowell
Using the album as a more abstract vehicle to process their grief became even more prescient. “For me, it’s a wonderful thing to have creative partners who are going through the shit with me,” Robert confirms, recalling some of the tougher moments his bandmates helped him through. “That is comforting, rather than, y’know, feeling isolated in moments like that.” “It was a delicate - and still is - balance to talk about,” Andy nods, “because it wasn’t ever supposed to feel exploitative, it was supposed to be an account of what I feel like we were all going through. When I’m writing, I find it’s easier to access my thoughts and emotions when I can frame it through another scope. The freedom of that is really nice, and I would just find myself going, ‘Wow, I understand what I was trying to talk about there’, you know? Conceptually, that character who’s talking to the angel of death, it’s me, it’s Robert, it’s our sons, it’s our dads.”
While it would be easy to assume that ‘The Million Masks of God’ is one of the band’s more reflective, sombre offerings, that couldn’t be sonically further from the truth. A bold, definitive statement of how far they’ve come together, it’s instead an album that’s packed with unexpected flourishes, and ambitious turns.
That’s, in part, thanks to the making of their previous album, when they found themselves at somewhat of a watershed moment. Having spent much of their time thus far inhabiting the more traditional confines of songwriting, it was only after Andy and Robert worked on the score for 2016’s surreal dark comedy Swiss Army Man that their approach was turned on its head. “It flipped the reset switch for us,” Robert told us back in 2017, when digging into the film score’s brief of not being able to use instruments - only their voices - to create the entire thing. It was a challenge that, even two albums on, clearly left a mark.
“We don’t feel constrained by any rules,” Andy remarks, at the idea of this being their most experimental record yet. “It’s funny you say experimental because I guess because we went through it for so long, and it continuously evolved, it feels very deliberate in a sense. But of course it’s experimental, there’s crazy shit all over it!” “It wasn’t a big leap for us because in our mind, we were learning all of these things from 2017 up until we made it,” Robert adds. “There were simplified versions of these songs, but we kept pushing. That became our bar; exploring until we found something that got us all very excited.”
A lesson in growth on all fronts, it feels as though ‘The Million Masks of God’ really does mark a new era for the band. And while it will undoubtedly represent all manner of emotions for the members themselves, their hopes for its impact on the wider world are a little more simple: “Hopefully people can feel a bit of peace from it,” Andy reflects. “I hope it can help people.”
‘The Million Masks of God’ is out 30th April via Loma Vista.
As featured in the April 2021 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.
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