manchester orchestra
[Photo by Shervin Lainez]

Manchester Orchestra walk through The Valley of Vision

The last few years have been weighing heavily on Andy Hull’s mind. Just a year into the pandemic in 2021, he and his band, Manchester Orchestra, put out The Million Masks of God, a tempest of drama in seismic — and cinematic — proportions. Not only did it serve as a compelling testimony on grief, at a time when many of us saw ourselves in the songs more immensely than ever, but it was their best record to date, one that further built out the story of its predecessor, 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface, and experimented with tricks that Hull picked up during his time scoring Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man the year before. After a decade of wailing guitars and brash percussion, Manchester Orchestra turned their voices into instruments, fashioning an echo chamber with their throats; an unspooling of grief by poetic tongues. 

A Black Mile to the Surface was a reset for the band after the thundering restlessness and busy production of Cope three years prior. At the time, the aesthetic of A Black Mile to the Surface seemed like a one-off, a smart detour that fiddled with what a Manchester Orchestra record could look and sound like. Gone was the steadfast heaviness of the band’s arrangements; the work being done had grown methodical beyond Hull’s monolithic lyricism. They weren’t softening up, only gnawing at the quiet parts through a wall of layered, choral harmonies. Cope had spawned captivating tracks, like “Girl Harbor,” “The Mansion” and “Every Stone,” and it was a great alt-rock record amid emo’s early 2010s rebirth. But Manchester Orchestra clearly had so much left to give and explore.

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The band’s new album, The Valley of Vision, is solemn, enduring. It’s perpendicular to other Manchester Orchestra records: In the moments where you might expect Hull, guitarist/keyboardist Robert McDowell, drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince to let their instruments engulf a song in flames, they don’t. Each chord, vocal run, synth pulse and bass note is calculated and meticulously placed. In the past, critics have accused the band of overproducing their records — of doing too much — which was the product of, after three records, filling out their compositions with a lot of characters, forward-facing instrumentals and the ambition to make things loud. “We finally made a record, Cope, where we got our way with how we wanted the guitars to be the rhythm track of an album, like some My Bloody Valentine-meets-Weezer thing, which I love,” Hull says. “But once we did that, it was like, ‘Cool, now let’s leave a lot of room.’” When the band wrote A Black Mile to the Surface, the songs they wrote weren’t so crowded with textures and tics, leaving enough room for, as Hull calls them, “Easter eggs” of callbacks, sonic moments and themes. 

At the surface, The Valley of Vision feels like Manchester Orchestra is shedding their former self. Rather than a battalion of brash guitars surrounding the percussion, a drum beat lingers under fragments of strings and vocal cues. Instead of flaunting his emo howl, Hull’s voice careens like wayfaring glass. Though the record sounds more bare bones than something like Cope, it is still the product of the band throwing everything at the wall, retracing their steps and subsequently trimming away the fat. “I still think you gotta overdo it, in order to get to a place where you can take it all away,” Hull says. “For us, at least, that’s our process. We’re going to add everything we can think of on a song, and then we’re going to start deleting the most important things that we think should be there. Then, generally, you find an idea that was inspired by the fourth idea that didn’t work out, but it led to the fifth idea. And, all of a sudden, the fifth idea is the lead part, or it’s the basis of the song.”

The importance of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the DNA of music is unparalleled, and some of the greatest albums and songs were recorded there, in the heart of northern Alabama: The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. There’s history and a spark of inspiration in the air, so it makes sense that some of Manchester Orchestra’s best work on The Valley of Vision came after Hull and McDowell (and later, the rest of the band) decamped there for two weeks. They holed up in a 100-year-old home fashioned into a studio in the middle of town, writing, recording and flirting with recluse status. “We were working 16-hour days, and we realized we can’t stay at a studio we’re working in because we won’t ever stop working,” Hull says. “By the time the band guys showed up, they were like, ‘Are you dudes cool?’ We definitely had a Howard Hughes vibe going on. It was some mad scientist shit, for sure.” 

Where A Black Mile to the Surface found Hull embracing the hope of being a happily married dad, A Million Masks of God was heavily influenced by the death of McDowell’s father. The transition from celebrating the miracles of health and life to wading through the grief of losing a loved one is the juxtaposition that informs The Valley of Vision most, where Hull is continuing the story while crawling toward some type of catharsis, wading through themes of appreciation and self-reconstruction. “There’s a sense of calmness to [the album]. The whole thing feels like it’s floating,” he says. “It’s a moment of reflection and gratitude. I hope it’s something people can have that feeling from and help them, as well. It also feels like a bridge into this world that we’re still inhabiting and writing songs in.”

That world now has a visual element to it, as Isaac Deitz, whom Hull collaborated with on the music video for “Telepath” in 2021, created a short, virtual reality film to accompany The Valley of Vision. The piece finds beautiful, blossoming imagery that takes the tranquility and stark momentum of the songs and puts them in front of you while you listen. It’s one of the first instances of a rock band using VR to help tell the stories of their songs, an untapped resource that Hull is acutely aware of. “The technology is so early,” he says. “There’s one guy on YouTube that can give you tips on it.” But you don’t have to have an Oculus or Google Daydream to access the 3D wonders of Deitz’s work, because it’s just as striking in 2D. 

Like Manchester Orchestra’s last two albums, The Valley of Vision gets its title from a religious text. This time, it was a book of Puritan prayers and devotions from 1975 that Hull’s mom had gifted him for Christmas in 2020. Though he isn’t entirely sure why the book was titled that, he found his own perspective on it, much like he did with the “a million masks of God” phrase he found in a poem published by G.K. Chesterton. He saw the title as an entryway into his own morality, into how he aims to be a better person through relief, acceptance and peace. “This record is about escaping that valley,” Hull says. “I saw this imagery of, ‘Man, when you are in this valley, and all you can see are hills, and you don’t know what’s outside of it. Your vision is limited.’ I just loved that concept, and, when I would randomly pick through the book a few times, I zoned in on these particular prayers [about] the destruction of ego and falling on your face before a higher power, saying ‘I need help.’ I love that. I was inspired by that.”

Religious themes are not sparse in Manchester Orchestra’s discography. Hull was born and raised in the Bible Belt and has pondered romance, politics and mental illness through a spiritual lens. When you listen to The Valley of Vision, flickers of church choirs and choral echoes arrive immediately. Much like an organ bouncing off the walls of an altar, the band inject large space into the songs and lets the arrangements interact with the openness. At the center of it all is Hull’s voice, as he employs what he learned while scoring the music for Swiss Army Man with McDowell in 2016. “You find ways to use the voice as an instrument that’s not just the lead vocal,” he says. “I was scared to put my voice too upfront. It was a very vulnerable thing before Black Mile. And then, doing this with the Swiss Army Man soundtrack, where it was just my voice and 150 of them for 13 months, you get used to it. I think there’s a level of comfort now that me and [McDowell] have when we’re doing vocals that I’ve just never felt before.”

Those vocal arrangements are everywhere on The Valley of Vision, especially in the harmonies on “The Way,” the falsetto and distortive effects on “Letting Go” and on “Rear View,” where Hull explores the dainty, patient parts of his own octave range, hitting haunting high notes. All of it is a mark of discipline for the band, as they push themselves to abandon everything they are really good at: powerful, loud, guitar-driven rock music. “The whole journey has been trying to exclude that more and more and see what else we can find,” Hull says. “So, when there is guitar, it’s used in a, hopefully, meaningful way that plays more like a character. A lot of the record was about following what it needed to be, not what we were trying to force it to be.” In the process, The Valley of Vision is the band’s shortest record to date, clocking in at six songs stretched across 26 minutes.

There are moments when Hull’s lyricism doesn’t need decoding. On the opener “Capital Karma,” he delivers a tender moment of affection to whomever is listening: “I’m in love with whoever you are/Nothing here is gonna take that away.” Hull understands that his songwriting is deeply entrenched in continuity, metaphors and recurring characters, and their meanings must be exhumed. Yet, he’s not so eager to divulge all of it, preferring to let the audiences find the links and come to their own conclusions about the messages.

“It’s really a record after a pretty traumatic couple of years for us, personally. The songs couldn’t have been written two years ago without going through that. I never really want to share exactly what it is because I don’t want anybody to limit what they’re thinking the story is. But it’s connected and should, hopefully, be a place of resolve before the next big adventure. Five years from now, I might open it up,” Hull says, chuckling.

Though this trio of records has found Manchester Orchestra piecing together new avenues through electronic minimalism in the wake of grief, exhaustion and heartache, The Valley of Vision ends in the same place that The Million Masks of God did two years ago: “And all this time, I thought I was right,” Hull sings, in an unfurling shudder, near the conclusion of “Rear View,” just as he did on “The Internet.” But there’s a shift in optimism awakened here in the present. The latter ends with uncertainty and pain, while the former swells into a mirage — as the entire band explode into a brief, gravitational fit of clarity, where the book is still being written but a chapter has finished. “I think that’s something I learned, just being all right with making something that feels resolved and happy or grateful, floating…” Hull says, before taking a quick pause. “Whatever that is.”