If you had only heard the initial two singles from The Million Masks of God – “Bed Head” and “Keel Timing,” the sixth album from Manchester Orchestra, you could argue that the Atlanta group has learned how to groove. I’m not talking about groove-metal, Pantera style, although their take on “Walk” would be sick. They have always had that heavy edge, after all. Their songs have always been catchy; look at the youthful energy of “Wolves at Night,” the brilliant key change on “I’ve Got Friends,” the blues-inspired “April Fool,” or the undeniable “Choose You.” The list could go on and on. On their fifth album, A Black Mile to the Surface, the band combined their talent for unforgettable melody with ambitious, sprawling storytelling. In that sense alone, The Million Masks of God is the natural successor, a sister album to their 2017 instant classic.
The Million Masks of God is co-produced by vocalist Andy Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell, alongside Black Mile producer Catherine Marks (The Killers, Alanis Morissette) and newcomer Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple). With these two powerhouses on board, Manchester Orchestra turns the concept album dial up to 11. While the theme was abstract at the beginning of writing, it became far more straightforward following the loss of McDowell’s father to cancer. “If Black Mile was this idea of ‘from birth to death,’ this album would really be more about ‘from birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life and exploring what could possibly come next,’” Hull explained. The question here is, how well do they tell the story? Does the music itself match the quality of the concept? To me, it’s complicated.
The record begins well enough. Album opener “Inaudible” recalls the philosophical storytelling Hull has fine-tuned over the years. While he has written about his relationship with God, sex, relationships, and fatherhood on numerous occasions, it hasn’t gotten old yet. When a grandiose string section swells over Hull’s soaring questions (“Now that you’re clawing the top and it’s taken your air/Are you here but in some ways, you vanished?”), it’s as affecting as ever. The Black Mile opener, “The Maze,” struck a chord with new parents in particular, with its muses on unspeakable love. At the same time, “Inaudible” reaches the most vulnerable end of the human lifespan – wheeling a loved one down to the old folks’ home.
“Angel of Death” follows, bringing the groove mentioned above (no, it isn’t a Slayer cover). It’s here that the band’s growth is clear. The transition from “Inaudible” to “Angel of Death” works perfectly; before simmering into a confident and dark rock song, they have always excelled at writing. The track’s bridge is as gorgeous as “Leave It Alone,” but with Manchester Orchestra arriving ready to conquer arenas with singalongs, it’s unlike any song in their discography so far.
However, when the very pretty “Annie” begins, something happens that I have never experienced with Manchester Orchestra: I tune out. The clean guitar tone is to-die-for, and Hull’s voice and lyrics are always familiar. Perhaps the lines themselves feel too commonplace. This moment is where I take issue with the band’s use of callbacks on The Million Masks of God – hearing the same lines appear on multiple tracks feels lazy when it’s Andy Hull singing and writing. How many times can he say, “I might just walk away from you,” “hold me now,” or ask for forgiveness? Why does the chord structure of “Way Back” mirror “Telepath” that much? Why am I left wishing that “The Internet” feels less like the quieter inverse of “The Silence”? By the time the distorted guitars crash in, it feels predictable where the band hoped to stray from typical song structures.
I understand where the band was coming from; I love concept albums, I appreciate the meticulous construction and dream-like nature. For me, though, instead of dreamy, the sequencing – which the band nailed on Black Mile – ends up hazy and not in a positive light. When they lose me, they pull me back in with “Dinosaur.” Bassist Andy Prince and drummer Tim Very are the heroes of the track – their bouncy grooves herald in the epic synthesizer-led climax and Hull’s desperate roar. “Obstacle” is the loveliest of the contemplative acoustic songs. While other pensive moments on The Million Masks of God could be anyone else’s song, this pair is quintessential Manchester Orchestra. Maybe the sequencing works a bit better than I thought, after all.
Considering it now, the first single being “Bed Head” was a smokescreen. There’s no song like it on The Million Masks of God, which is a bummer. That track brought Silversun Pickups fans back to their 2012 release, Neck of the Woods. Meaning, where is my “Mean Spirits” to your “Skin Graph”? When Manchester Orchestra centralized the album’s concept and montage-like structure, they lost something. They lost the experimentation that excited me so much about songs like “Bed Head,” “The Moth,” and “Lead, SD.” I hope that they find it again in the future; hook dark, fiery, synth-driven Manchester Orchestra into my veins.
Two months ago, I wrote a feature called Manchester Orchestra is the Best Band in the World. Do I still believe that, despite not loving The Million Masks of God like I wanted to? Of course, I do. My relationship with those records that mean so much to me – I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, Mean Everything to Nothing, Simple Math, and A Black Mile to the Surface – hasn’t dissipated. And, I can’t wait to listen to Masks on vinyl when it arrives in the mail. Like every other Manchester Orchestra release, it needs time and patience to be fully understood. Hopefully, I feel less conflicted by then.