Manchester Orchestra face the angel of death

click to enlarge Manchester Orchestra face the angel of death
(Manchester Orchestra/Submitted)
Manchester Orchestra is, from left, drummer Tim Very, bassist Andy Prince, vocalist/guitarist Andy Hull and guitarist/keyboardist Robert McDowell.

The members of Manchester Orchestra were barely out of high school when they debuted with 2006’s “I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child.”

With inky songs centered around deeply personal, Southern gothic-style lyrics silhouetted against a compelling post-hardcore rock sound — the brain trust of childhood friends and primary songwriters, singer/guitarist Andy Hull and guitarist/keyboardist Robert McDowell — their star began to ascend. 

Now with the addition of drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince, Georgia’s Manchester Orchestra returns with “The Million Masks of God.” The album’s title derives from “Gold Leaves,” an early poem by G. K. Chesterton that details the narrator’s shifting relationship with God as he ages.

Exploring themes of birth, death, religion and what may lie beyond, “The Million Masks of God” is the band’s most ambitious work. The tracking for the album took place at Echo Mountain Recording studios in Asheville, North Carolina. 

“There is something about being up there, in the mountains, in this beautiful old church converted into a studio,” McDowell said. 

McDowell had just returned from the United Kingdom, having completed dates at the O2 Forum Kentish Town in London and the Manchester Academy. He was enjoying a few days at home with family in Atlanta. 

“It was great. We played some of our best shows ever,” McDowell enthused. 

Native to the suburbs of Atlanta — singer Andy Hull and McDowell now live short miles from the homes where they grew up — it was a fey music from 4,000 miles away that would inspire the band’s name. 

“Andy and I had gone through different phases, musically. But, it was The Smiths and Morrissey and everything that came out of Manchester that really resonated with him,” McDowell adds. “We are not from a hip city. But this city shaped who we are.

“I met Andy when I was 14 and he was 16. We went to high school together. We immediately understood each other and the chase to create something great.” 

McDowell grew up in a musical household. His father was a singer and songwriter who encouraged his son to discover the passion behind music above all else. 

A lesson that has served McDowell well. 

“It was when I used my dad’s 1980s Tascam (four-track cassette recorder) with my cousins, recording music for the first time, that opened my eyes. ‘This is limitless,’ I thought. You can play music. But if you create music, it unlocks this whole new world.” 

After 18 years of existence as a band, it may be that Saraswati — the Hindu goddess of creativity, music, art and wisdom — continues to whisper in their ear. 

“You know if it was cash. I think we probably would have made different decisions a long time ago,” McDowell stated. “I obsess over the next thing and what can be. Andy and I are good and bad for each other. We love to chase what we can’t see yet.” 

Written and recorded over four years, Manchester Orchestra’s latest album, “The Million Masks of God” — described as a “loose story of a man’s encounter with the angel of death as he’s shown various scenes from his life” — began to coalesce as McDowell’s father’s cancer worsened. 

“We were writing it during his final two years. Three months before we went into the studio to record is when he passed away.” 

The fictional intent behind the album changed, at that point. 

“It shifted the mood of where you’re at as a band,” McDowell said, reflectively. 

“It was a muse, rather than a central point. But, that album is not the way it is without that event, unfortunately.” 

From Manchester Orchestra’s earliest works — “I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child” and “Mean Everything to Nothing” — McDowell’s father was always privy to their demos and rough mixes as the songs began to unfold. 

“There is inspiration and ways that you can use creativity to process grief,” McDowell reflected. “My dad was a musician. He would have wanted it to have not gone to waste.” 

Hull hopes that the album is a work of healing. 

Akin to swimming “A Black Mile to the Surface” to ultimately arrive in the light. 

Raised in The Bible Belt, the four members of Manchester Orchestra were socialized in religious homes. Hull’s father and grandfather were pastors. 

Yet, McDowell and Hull have stated unequivocally that Manchester Orchestra is not a Christian band. McDowell reflects, “But as people, we want to find God. It’s in the core of our DNA. It’s something that we will always be chasing.” 

As the tour winds its way through North America, Manchester Orchestra audiences can expect to see a concert that draws from “The Million Masks of God” and its predecessor, “A Black Mile to the Surface” and other works. 

McDowell says, “Last week, after the London shows, we started to kind of put our heads together to figure out what it’s going to be. We are not sure, yet. Our goal at this point is to play songs that the crowd will enjoy. But that we also enjoy playing.

“That’s one thing I love. We are able to pull from songs that are 15-plus years old. It’s exhausting for everyone if we just play loud bangers. So, we treat a concert like a movie where you have different emotions.” 

After six studio albums, with forays into different musical styles — the rougher edges of punk and emo, dance rhythms, and softer sounds, folk music and dream pop — McDowell is speculative about the future. 

“Rather than defining ourselves and putting ourselves into a corner. We will leave it a little blurry. Aim for the moon and see where we land,” McDowell said. “We want to figure out a new thing. We want to keep pushing in a new direction, while using the tools we have acquired in our tool belt. I wish I had the answer for you. That would make my life a lot less stressful. But we’ve got it figured out.” 

Keeping “both feet on the floor,” the Manchester Orchestra is set to “Let It Storm.”   

Manchester Orchestra w/Petey and Creeks

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2

WHERE: Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress Street, Tucson

COST: Tickets start at $30

INFO: 520-740-1000, rialtotheatre.com

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