Music Monday – Manchester Orchestra: A Black Mile to the Surface

Album: A Black Mile to the Surface by Manchester Orchestra

Album Cover.jpg
A Black Mile to the Surface

Released: July 29th, 2017

Band Info:
Manchester Orchestra is an indie-rock band that was formed in 2004 by rhythm guitarist-singer-songwriter Andy Hull. It currently includes him, Robert McDowell on lead guitar, Andy Prince on bass, and Tim Very as their drummer. Known for their ability to go from jarring rock tunes to comforting acoustic ballads, Manchester Orchestra have developed with each of their five studio albums, and it was in the wake of 2014’s Cope that Hull and McDowell were asked to create the soundtrack for the film Swiss Army Man (2016). The duo took the lessons they learned by creating music with a cinematic scope and combined them with their mastery of dynamics to create their latest offering, A Black Mile to the Surface.

Band Photo.jpg
Manchester Orchestra with producer Catherine Marks.

The Story and the Songs:
A Black Mile to the Surface is a collection of songs that all revolve around the town of Lead, South Dakota. Evoking a cloudy background much like the album art, the songs center and play off of each other to form a cohesive whole. The album starts off with “The Maze” which builds alongside ethereal electronics and Hull’s haunting vocals; the lyrics are from the perspective of a child looking at a parent. “The Gold” tells the story of a wife talking to her husband who works in a gold mine. The catchy guitar riff and soaring chorus made this first single from the album a standout. “The Moth” is another straight-forward rock track with pulsing percussion that rolls the song along. Through static and half-heard radio commercials comes “Lead, SD”; the only song on the album that doesn’t begin with the word “the”, “Lead, SD” takes advantage of synthesizers and a more bombastic approach than the preceding songs.

The next three songs on the album all work off of the same chord progression and form a trilogy that works as a whole while maintaining each track’s individuality. “The Alien” tells the story of someone with a physical deformity who tries to end their life with unforeseen consequences; this track has a subtle groove that moves the listener with its inertia into the following track, “The Sunshine.” This track showcases Prince’s bass playing (Andy Prince, not THE Prince) over Very’s coffeehouse saunter on the skins. The trilogy of songs culminates in the jarring turnaround of “The Grocery” which continues the chord progression and themes, but with more of an edge and indie rock flair.

The final four songs of the album return to what we’ve heard before while throwing a couple more genre shifts into the mix for good measure. “The Wolf” is probably the heaviest of all the tracks with its percussion and distorted guitars at the forefront. The song grooves in its own right with verses that cause involuntary head bobbing. “The Mistake” slows things down a little while keeping the volume and expectations high. Shifting tones again, “The Parts” is based the most in the real world with references to events in Hull’s life; the song is a serenade to his wife that despite all the years they have been together, he still wants to know each part of her. Hull’s croon atop somber acoustic guitar ensures that this is a love song that stands apart. The final track on the album is “The Silence”; an almost seven minute summation of the previous musical and lyrical themes of the album.

Despite the lack of a clearly stated storyline, A Black Mile to the Surface is still a model concept album in its own right. The album works as a single, cohesive piece of art that can be enjoyed when listened to in its entirety. However, each song works on its own and this speaks to the immense craft put into the songs by the band; they are able to create soundscapes and a cinematic feel that transcends the formula of an indie rock album. A Black Mile to the Surface is the culmination of the band’s previous albums and experiences that takes what they have learned in the studio and on the road and puts it to use to create a piece of music that is fulfilling for the listener.

Please enjoy some song recommendations, a song from the album, and check out the band’s social media accounts below!

Song recommendations: “The Gold” , “Lead, SD” , “The Wolf” , “The Parts”

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My double vinyl copy of A Black Mile to the Surface. This clear and black smoke version was one of two limited editions released on vinyl.

Social Media:
Band Website
Twitter
Instagram
Facebook
YouTube

The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.
Album Cover
Band Photo

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8 thoughts on “Music Monday – Manchester Orchestra: A Black Mile to the Surface

    1. He’s an amazing storyteller and musician! And I have heard Right Away Great Captain! I was thinking about covering those albums, but I would need to listen to them a lot more to become comfortable with the story in them.

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      1. For sure! And I would recommend the Family Tree albums by Radical Face. They’re three connected concept albums that are amazing and rival RAGC in their storytelling and lyricism; I’ll be writing about them next year.

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