There are some artists that, no matter what, sound quintessentially like the decade they’re from. Cheap Trick will sound like the 1970s. Sarah McLachlan always sounds a bit 1990s. In this vein, Manchester Orchestra is an indie rock band formed in 2004. You can really tell.
A Black Mile to the Surface is certainly a well-crafted album. Manchester Orchestra crafts a dark, indie pop sound. The individual songs effortlessly flow together and transition from one to the next, making the overall piece less an album composed of eleven songs and more a forty-nine minute experience. That does mean that very few songs stand out and a few songs, while they work wonderfully in context, just sound awkward in an individual context. The last half of the album starts to greatly flag, especially in comparison to the amazingly written first quarter–though thankfully, the last song serves as a bright, pulsating powerful climax. Still, with A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra gives us a thoughtfully put together soothing piece of indie pop.
But you just can’t ignore the fact that it sounds very mid 2000s. The style and instrumentation are oddly dated, especially the pianos and synths compared with the pounding rock guitar. Songs like “The Moth” are beautifully put together but, especially the first few minutes, sound a bit old. Which is odd, because Andy Hull’s vocals sound amazingly modern. The vocals are the high point of the album. Tracks stack the vocals, layer them in harmonies, and play with the vocals in interesting ways that will always draw your attention. “The Maze,” an exceptionally powerful start to the album, plays with the concept even more, adding in whispers juxtaposed with choirs to create a lush, fuller sound that thankfully stays on the right side of pretentious. The old vs. new dichotomy occasionally meshes astonishingly well but, more often than not, just sounds a bit odd.
Perhaps the weakest part of the album is the percussion. There’s no better way to describe it than just uneven. Songs like “The Grocery” or “The Mistake” will have a beautiful soft guitar and simple vocals but the percussion juts in like the aural equivalent of someone clomping around the house in steel toed boots. It’s jarring, it’s too noticeable, and it makes no sense compared with the rest of the song’s sound. The heavy, thick percussion is simply confusing, pulling the song into a new, odd style and distracting from any sense of unity.
Overall, A Black Mile to the Surface is a good album, forty nine minutes of lush dark indie pop, with amazing vocals to balance out an odd production. Carve out a chunk of time and listen to it yourself in order to get this full experience.