There’s that beep. There’s that panning over Asheville, North Carolina. The Manchester Orchestra logo. It’s all so familiar – we’ve seen the trailer for this film. We are subsequently cast to Echo Mountain Recording Studios, NC, where the band recorded their greatest album to date, A Black Mile to the Surface. We’re not here for an anniversary show, nor are we here upon release of the album. No, it’s been four years since Andy Hull (vocals, guitar, producer, all-around legend), Robert McDowell (guitar, keyboards, vocals, producer, engineer, all-around legend), Andy Prince (bass, another all-around legend) and Tim Very (drums, legend) released their fifth album into the world.
We are here – over 6.5 thousand people watching this live stream at 8 pm EST/12 pm AEST – watching an exceedingly special performance of Black Mile played in its entirety right from our living rooms. In a statement, Hull shared that the band was excited to share this concert, for free, to everybody: “This album and your reception to it has exceeded our expectations, and we felt this the best way to thank you all for supporting our music.” This presentation invited speculation: after all, Andy did say that this would be more than a concert. It’s also the beginning. Of what, exactly?
The band takes place behind stained glass windows. The production value of this concert – the lighting, the sound mix, the location – isn’t lost on us. It is utterly outstanding. Then, the music starts. “I notice me when you’re noticing me,” Hull sings, commanding shivers to race down our spines in his prayer/ode to his daughter. There are cheeky, confident smiles shared between bandmates as they all become possessed by an extended breakdown to “The Gold” that recalls the title track of their 2009 album, Mean Everything to Nothing. We finally get to hear songs we’ve dreamed of hearing live – “holy shit, has ‘Lead, SD’ always sounded this heavy?”, I exclaim to myself. My palms are sweaty, and I lose all control when they play “The Wolf,” a perfect song. That opening drum fill is still awesome, no surprise there. “The Mistake” sounds better than ever. Hang on a moment, even the songs we’ve heard live 30 times on YouTube or at concerts we attended – namely, “The Sunshine,” become storied epics.
Best of all, this concert film features teaser snippets of what’s coming soon: the highly anticipated follow up album. We reckon LP6 will be entitled The Million Masks of God, since a) those words clearly burst on the screen a few times, and b) this band has a knack for great album and song titles. This is when I flashback to my teenage years, my peak music obsession. The obsession for discovering new music. The fixation with following clues down a rabbit hole; I must know what everything means! With these teasers, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown 3.0 in my state of Victoria, Australia escaped all thought. I was watching the best band in the world with my friends online, just as I did ten years ago. We haven’t lost that sense of community. On 12 February 2021, Manchester Orchestra brought us together again through incredible music, an unstoppable hype train, and the reminder that they love us fans as much as we adore them.
Allow me to wax like the emo I am for a moment. I didn’t see Manchester Orchestra live in 2014, because 17-year-old me was an idiot. I had discovered the Atlanta group in early 2013 in the most typical Mary-fashion possible: through the AbsolutePunk forums. At that stage, I was totally obsessed with Brand New. I would have tattooed their lyrics on my skin but thankfully didn’t. Their vocalist’s decision to allegedly abuse his power over minors is disgraceful; the band’s enabling and silence when rabid fans attacked survivors equally unforgivable. The one good thing to come from my long relationship with that band is the swath of music I discovered through their associated acts and influences. Alas, my relationship with Manchester Orchestra was born and fizzled to full-blown fandom over time.
I’m the type of person who can’t study or write in silence. I also can’t focus when I hear people talking. So, I learned to combat my struggle for full attention by listening to music and blocking out the world around me (Split Enz fifth album, True Colours is playing as I write this). After a memoir-writing class in high school, I found a private space, scrolled to Simple Math on my iPod Classic, and attempted to get something going. “Memoirs suck,” I grumbled under my breath. I had a very privileged upbringing, what could I possibly write about? That’s when my teacher approached me: “You can make up a story,” she said with a grin. I could embody characters – real or fictional!? Fantastic! I could be like Andy Hull and epitomize someone fighting addiction, or someone who was deeply in love and staring wistfully at a poster of Britney Spears on the ceiling. His storytelling has inspired mine more than once over.
Prior to the release of Manchester Orchestra’s fourth album, COPE, I believed that they were the best band in the world. Their third album, Simple Math – with its realized form of questioning of everything from marriage to sex to religion and sonic diversity bowled me over. While Andy explores his relationship with the Christian God in numerous songs, he never comes across as preachy. This atheist is thankful for that. When Adam Pfleider wrote, “When Hull sings ‘Believe me, all is brilliant,’ it really is once again for this band,” in his AP.net review, I was over the moon. He understood! Yes, Andy Hull is a magnificent songwriter! They could do no wrong at that point. Simple Math is so close to being an embarrassment of riches: there’s the all-out rock of “Mighty” and “April Fool”; tender songs of disbelief and addiction (“Deer” and “Leaky Breaks,” respectively), grandiosity (“Pale Black Eye”) and a creepy children’s choir (“Virgin”) to boot.
However, Mean Everything to Nothing didn’t similarly hit me like a ton of bricks. The first half of the album is an assault on the senses – rip-roaring riffs and solos and rib-splitting vocals – before it begins to meander. Don’t get me wrong, “I Can Feel A Hot One” is as beautiful as Manchester Orchestra gets. I just didn’t vibe with the run of “My Friend Marcus”- “The River/Jimmy, He Whispers” for a long time. Don’t worry, I have since seen the light.
I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, though – their powerful, focused debut album; even more impressive when recalling that it was made by teenagers – didn’t leave rotation for a while. There’s a charm to the naivety and youth of it all. BrooklynVegan heralded the album as a “misunderstood classic”, which is difficult to argue against. In 2007, Manchester Orchestra was labeled as an “emo” band and tossed aside by critics who would rather write reviews about The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife (not a diss, I love The Decemberists. I’m Like a Virgin… just didn’t fit in anyone’s definition of “indie rock” at the time). Andrew Sacher, writing about I’m Like a Virgin… on the precipice of its 10-year-anniversary, further notes that the album is irresistibly warm and undoubtedly emotional then quotes the opening and closing lyrics of “Sleeper 1972”. “All these years later, I still get at least a little choked up when I hear Andy Hull sing it,” he writes. Amen. With their debut album, Manchester Orchestra was already unmatched in ambition alone.
Watching the Black Mile to the Surface concert film again, I realize that we are truly blessed to be alive while Manchester Orchestra is making music. Why don’t we talk about the music we love all the time, regardless of a new album cycle or upcoming anniversary? What’s stopping us? What’s wrong with being a little sentimental? I can see my hypocrisy here – after all, I’m writing this after a concert a few days ago. This entire article is owned by the recency effect. Let’s change the way we entertainment writers and music lovers discuss music. Why end the conversations? Why succumb to the 24-hour news cycle, trends, and things we don’t feel passionate about writing?
If you’re still reading this (THANK YOU), you may understand where I’m coming from. If you wake up with the climax and words, “when I fly solo, I fly so high,” from “I Can Barely Breathe” swirling in your brain, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child still matters to you. Likewise, if you go for a walk and “Are you paying too much for your life insurance,” from “The Wolf” gets stuck in your head, A Black Mile to the Surface is still important to you. Talk about it! If you’re like me, then Manchester Orchestra remains the best band in the world.