Manchester Orchestra: “It feels like a bridge. I don’t know what it’s bridging to”

Focussed on resilience, rebirth and self-redemption, MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA are back with a surprise new project.

Surprise! Manchester Orchestra are back with ‘The Valley of Vision’. Call it an EP. A mini-album. Whatever. The seamless six-track collection is the next chapter in the story Andy Hull and co have been telling since their reinvention on ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ six years ago.

“I don’t really know exactly what it is yet. It doesn’t feel like an EP, it doesn’t feel like an album,” Andy considers as we discuss “the outfit” that this assembly of songs is wearing. Delving deeper, it becomes clear that maybe the appropriate label for ‘The Valley of Vision’ might exist outside the conventional terms we reserve for music.

“In a lot of ways, it feels like this floating piece of music to me. It feels like a bridge. I don’t know what it’s bridging to,” he ponders. 

“The whole thing feels like floating and where I know our last album was dealing with grief and trauma, and this, to me, feels intentionally calm and hopeful.

“There is not a lot of anger here, at all. This is like an acceptance album. And I think working on this album from that angle was healing to me. It feels like a record of healing.”

What you can’t call ‘The Valley of Vision’ is filler. You’d be right to be wary. A surprise album just 18 months after their last album? Surely, it’s just what didn’t make it on the last album? The B-sides? Bumf? You’d be wrong, though.

Actually, ‘The Valley of Vision’ is the complete execution of what Manchester Orchestra wanted it to be. In the age of streaming, instant gratification and singles, it’s allowed the band to be free to tell the story they want to tell.

The singer explains, “This was more of an exercise in really committing to, regardless of the length of the project, what we felt was the right body of music. I would rather really perfect something that is 27 minutes, and it feels perfect to me than it to be 38 minutes just so we can call it an album.”

While sonically this EP remains as expansive and experimental as ever, the mood has shifted. Its predecessor, ‘The Million Masks of God’ was a weighty discussion with The Angel of Death that mirrored the band’s own journey through grief, which came with the passing of guitarist Rob McDowell’s father following a long-term illness.

As the first track, ‘Capital Karma’, opens up on this EP, the long-term grief still lingers, but as the song stretches skyward, the first spring buds begin to show after a long, cold, winter. And from there, the tracks seamlessly flow together on a journey of rebirth before looping back poignantly and self-referentially revisiting the final lines of ‘The Internet’, the closer on the band’s last record. But this time, in the last lines of ‘Rear View’, the EP’s dramatic parting gift, Catherine Marks, producer of the last few MO records was enlisted to declare, “From the mountain tops / demons be gone / the curse is over” again and again. “We’re looking at this bad experience and all of this stuff from a rear view. We are actively driving away from it,” Andy explains.

So what are Manchester Orchestra driving towards? Who knows? Well, the band do; they’ve got the next 10-15 years mapped out, according to the singer. But, there hasn’t been a more exciting time than right now in all 19 years of this band.

Perhaps it’s the nature of ‘The Valley of Vision’. They’ve become unpredictable. With only two weeks between its announcement and subsequent release, the heightened buzz around Manchester Orchestra is more palpable. Breaking the rules on how we define an album is exhilarating. It opens up limitless possibilities on how and when they continue the story. Look at the way they dropped the standalone and beautifully devastating single ‘No Rule’ in November, which caught everyone off guard. Underestimate Manchester Orchestra at your peril.

“There is a weird part of us that loves being underestimated. There is something nice about it. You have no idea what we can do, and that’s what I’ve kept in my mind and in my back pocket the whole time,” Andy smiles.

And did we mention the film? Oh yeah, the visual accompaniment to ‘The Valley of Vision’. Hand in hand with the music goes an immersive cinematic experience. The film was created by Isaac Deitz, who executed the music video for ‘Telepath’ on the last album, and Andy jumped in to help with the editing too. In fact, the original film idea had been for the ‘Million Masks’ album, but VR headset listening parties were not the safest of ideas to come up with during the pandemic. So they saved it for this project instead, and, in Andy’s words, “it doesn’t take you away from the music at all; it’s enhancing it.”

The film will be released in a bunch of different formats, but it was also used and edited using cutting-edge VR technology in the hope of achieving complete escapism. The film leans away from “hyper narration”, as Andy puts it, but instead, “we talked a lot about the themes of the record, and Isaac interpreted them in his own way.” In turn, the filmmaker spent the best part of a year travelling the US, finding the most stunning landscapes that could connect with the rhetoric that the band have conjured on their last few albums. 

The film is the cherry on top of a stunning piece of work from Manchester Orchestra and only adds to the eagerness around the band. And they feel it too. “There is more excitement and energy around the band than there has ever been and which is so cool for a bunch of dudes who still feel like there is still a lot of energy in the tank creatively,” he adds as we consider where the band goes from here.

It’s been a hot streak from Atlanta, Georgia’s finest rock experimenters over the last few years. The foundations that were set on their debut album back in 2006 still remain; quiet tension and tenderness, anthemic release and an insatiable appetite for inventiveness. But in recent years, they’ve become technically one of the most outstanding bands around.

For Andy Hull, it’s down to a few things. Firstly and mainly, it’s down to trust. “It’s a very weird thing being in a band in your youth because you don’t really know how to communicate with people in such an intimate and vulnerable place that is making art in front of your friends, and that is a tough thing. What can happen is defensiveness and resentment, and these things we were able to navigate in our early days, but we didn’t have the trust really there,” he admits.

“It was harder for us to make albums back then emotionally. They’re much harder now mentally!” he laughs. “But they were harder emotionally back then until I pushed through it. It felt like a battle every time.”

They’ve strived and battled to get to this point, not only as musicians but as people too. That’s going to happen when you spend nearly two decades together fine-tuning a line-up and growing up.

“The truth is, we are just better because we stayed together. We kept trying, and we kept going for it. Our abilities get wider. I learned how to play piano. That’s helpful! I should have learned that 15 years ago. And once I learned piano it was like, ‘wow, 50 songs right here on this piano’.”

The same goes for all the band. Andy is quick to credit the band’s drummer, Tim Very, whose approach to drum loops and how to manipulate are second to none and have played a huge part in the reinvented sound of Manchester Orchestra. They’ve all been on the same learning curve together.

While the addition of producer Catherine Marks’ involvement in the band’s direction from ‘A Black Mile’ onwards seems like the most monumental change in the band’s sound and Andy’s approach to songwriting, the singer thanks both fatherhood and the album previous as the lightbulb moment for him.

“I think, lyrically, I started to get into this zone where we are at with ‘Cope’, but it’s hard to tell that with ‘Cope’ because it sounds the opposite of that musically. There is peace there. There is the beginning of a negotiation with peace on that album.

“And when my daughter arrives, the axis of everything switches on its head and, all of a sudden, the work becomes even more valuable to me because if I want to be away from this thing that I love and I’m obsessed with taking care of, then its really got to be worth my time. So I’ve really got to make the most of all of it.”

And make the most of it is exactly what they’ve done.

That’s not to say that Manchester Orchestra’s forward momentum is leaving a trail of dust away from the band that created ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’. In fact, there is still room for them to revisit those more direct, ramped-up days of old.

“I could pop you in the face and scream in your face; I know I’ve got that trick right here, and I love that,” he teases.

“I love music like that. We haven’t made music like that in a long time. I would not be surprised if we dipped back into that zone in the future because we love heavy music. But what I think this whole thing – Phase 2 of this band – has been trying to reach those same moments of epic-ness and intimacy without having to bank on emotional outbursts.”

Instead of the “emotional outbursts”, the philosophy of late and where we land on ‘The Valley of Vision’ is to get weird and fail. If you were to imagine this EP as Michelangelo’s David, then the band built the slab of marble themselves before they took a chisel to it. The finished product continues their love affairs with restraint, cathedral-housed soundscapes and room for Andy Hull to perform the most subtle ASMR performance directly into the deepest cortex of your brain. But, before they reached that point, they threw every conceivable idea at the wall.

“You talk about restraint, but we practice the opposite of that when we are putting stuff together on a song,” Andy explains. “We will legitimately add every idea we can think of. John Congleton, the great producer, told us one time, ‘You’ve got to try the wrong idea. What do you think the worst thing to do would be and then try that?’ So it’s a lot of that.

“What does an accordion sound like through an octave pedal and a reverse delay? It sounds fucking weird, cool, let it be that. And so we add all this stuff. And then we start deleting. Violently deleting just so many tracks and it shows us this identity of the song that we get to choose that we probably wouldn’t have for the first instrument to put on something.

“’Quietly’ is a great example of that. It sounds like those drums are big, but that is Tim playing a snare drum with a cloth on it with two pencils. It is the quietest thing. We got really obsessed with that too. You don’t have to smack it hard for it to sound enormous. We started nerding out about every little sound.

“Once you have made the song great, you have the right to go and get weird on it,” he reasons.

‘The Valley of Vision’ ends up being the gift that keeps on giving. Its surprise announcement and release would have been enough. It’s a gift to behold this audio-visual experience in its full brilliance. The feelings of hope and rebirth are a gift, especially following the pain that consumed the last record. The second track, ‘The Way’, repeatedly asks, “Can I start again?” and the answer is an overwhelming yes. And, the more you experience the coherent flow through these six tracks, the more you uncover those secret surprises where they “get weird on it”, as Andy puts it.

“The more you listen to it, the more that stuff will come out,” he promises. “We just placed little gifts everywhere.” ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Upset – order a copy below. Manchester Orchestra’s EP ‘The Valley Of Vision’ is out now.