A blend of fever dreams, shouted-out self-doubt and resignation, Manchester Orchestra’s “The Million Masks of God” is an epic and existential journey that further solidifies the band as one of the most innovative and compelling in the modern rock landscape. Following 2017’s heart-wrenching, beautiful “A Black Mile to the Surface,” the new album is essentially two pieces: the epic, effects-laden first side and the airy, more stripped-down side two.
The layered, stylized first half builds upon the feel of “A Black Mile,” with cinematic sound effects and ear candy decorating tracks like “Angel of Death,” where Andy Hull’s vocals and Tim Very’s drums work in lockstep. Indeed, while Manchester Orchestra is a “guitar band,” the vocals and drums are most important — and forward in the mix — especially on the album’s first side.
“Keel Timing” rides a repetitive, insistent beat, while Hull’s nuanced singing over Very’s syncopated playing on “Bed Head” make it one of the album’s more enjoyable moments. On “Annie,” the last song on the first side, Hull is again a star, making a lyric like the emo-riffic cringe “Would you take my heart and nail it to your wall?” somehow stand up.
The low-key, acoustic ballad “Telepath” starts side two, ushering in the album’s gentler half. “Let It Storm” is breezy modern folk rock, and on “Dinosaur,” Hull is preoccupied with repeating himself, a common fear for artists. The whispery “Way Back” gives way to “The Internet,” as the album dissipates more than comes to a sharp end.
Side two can be heard as the calm after the cacophony that is side one, or it can be heard as a quiet disappointment after the bombastic promise of the first side. Whatever your take, Manchester Orchestra is wont to contrast its arena-rock side with its intimate persona, as it did on 2014’s “Cope” and its arguably more effective stripped-down version, “Hope.” Marking that divide on one release, as the band does on “Masks,” is riskier but provides a more immediate and visceral payoff. Would it have made more sense to open with the quieter half and build up to the high-octane side? It’s a question worth debating, and maybe one the band itself kicked around. But no one is stopping you from listening to side two first.