Who wants to talk about music?
Well, good. Me too. So let me start by telling you a story about science.
I work for a particle physics laboratory, and a couple weeks ago we held a groundbreaking for our latest and largest experiment. We’re basically building a 70,000-ton monolith that will help us capture more information about tiny particles called neutrinos that are all around us, but are frustratingly difficult to study. This wasn’t just any groundbreaking – it took place a mile underground, in the site of the old Homestake mine in South Dakota.
Homestake used to be the deepest gold mine in North America. It’s located in a town called Lead, which is pronounced like “lead on, MacDuff” despite the many lead-into-gold jokes that a different pronunciation would open up. To get to the site of what will be our new experiment, you have to take a cage (basically an open wooden elevator operated by a massive 80-year-old winching system) down for about 10 minutes, watching the rock pass by as you go, and then get onto a motorized tram car and travel for another 10 minutes through narrow caverns of rock. It was quite the experience.
While I was there, I got a sense of how important the Homestake mine was to this region, and how intimately tied to the mine the history of Lead is. I met people who worked in the mine, and whose parents and grandparents worked in the mine. Building our new experiment will create a couple thousand local jobs, and the people of Lead are grateful to the underground research facility that took donation of the mine in 2009. They’re pleased to see something that was the center of their town’s life continue to be put to good use.
I mention all of this to say that I have a personal connection to Manchester Orchestra’s brilliant new album, A Black Mile to the Surface. Its story takes place in and around the Homestake mine, when it was still used for its original purpose. There’s a song called “Lead, S.D,” the only song that breaks with the album’s article-noun naming convention. (Others include “The Maze,” “The Gold,” “The Silence,” etc.) The mine and the town are used as a symbol of being stuck in a place, and later on, being stuck in a family.
Manchester Orchestra (they’re actually from Atlanta) is led by Andy Hull, a powerful singer who writes aching lyrics and sweeping melodies to go with them. Hull has said that Black Mile was inspired by the birth of his now-three-year-old daughter. Becoming a father has matured Hull, but it has also opened up new topics for him to dissect with his trademark fervor. This is a record about being part of a family, but it is also one about death and insignificance, about seeing one’s life for the fleeting thing that it is. It’s fitting that it was inspired by a birth, because this record really is the birth of something new for the band.
A Black Mile is the most complex and widescreen Manchester Orchestra record, and it gets there not by going bigger (as if they could get bigger than the amps-on-fire rock they’ve been playing since the start), but by embracing dynamics and scope. It’s the most well-produced album in their catalog, and in this case that doesn’t mean that it’s glossy or blunted. It just means it sounds fuller, that instead of just running headlong into the red, the band is now playing on a canvas that can accommodate their ambitions. Their last records, the scorching Cope and its quiet twin Hope, explored the extremes of their sound. Black Mile brings it all together, showing what they’re really capable of.
Hull and the band have responded with their best set of songs, their most cry-out-in-the-desert honest work they’ve ever delivered. Much of this album is wrapped up in fictional narratives, and it’s remarkable – as it always is with this band – that they’re able to cut right to the emotional heart anyway. “The Gold” is one of the sharpest songs they’ve written, Hull introducing us to a couple torn apart by the gold mine and their differences. “You and me, we’re a day drink, so lose your faith in me,” he sings over a rolling 6/8 riff, and it’s magical.
While “The Gold” is a high point, the album never slips from that pinnacle. Other highlights include the tricky, furious “The Moth,” the lower-key and lovely “The Alien,” the Hull solo track “The Parts” (probably the saddest and most affecting of these songs) and the extraordinary closer “The Silence,” on which Hull addresses the chains of family: “Little girl, you are cursed by my ancestry, there’s nothing but darkness and agony…”
A Black Mile to the Surface is a novel in album form, a dark masterpiece about responsibility and inertia. I went into it looking for connections to my own life and Homestake, but came out of it simply blown away by the heart and scope of this thing. I’ve always liked Manchester Orchestra, but this is the first time I have unreservedly loved every song, the first time that Hull’s horizon-wide narratives and ambition have swept me along like a pebble in a river. Everything about this record is beautiful. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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Ambition, scope and heart used to be the hallmarks of Arcade Fire, the Montreal band with like 75 members. They exploded out of nowhere 13 years ago with a driving, nostalgic rock record called Funeral, and only got better on 2007’s Neon Bible and 2010’s The Suburbs. Arcade Fire’s sound was enormous and all-encompassing, the sort of thing you can only do for so long before burning out on it.
The turning point came on Reflektor, a double album on which the band embraced danceable, Talking Heads-ish grooves. And now they’ve gone full Abba on their fifth and worst record, Everything Now. Most of this album takes the form of a dance party about materialism and commercialism, which certainly feels like an attempt at irony, but it’s so leaden, so on the nose, that it falls flat. U2 took on a similar irony in the ‘90s and did it far more successfully, which should put this backfire in perspective.
Not that this doesn’t shimmy and shake convincingly. The opening trilogy of the bubblegum-pop title track, the relentless “Signs of Life” and the throbbing synths of “Creature Comfort” certainly set a tone, Win Butler railing against our dead-inside culture and addressing teenage suicide with typical bluntness: “God, make me famous, and if you can’t, just make it painless.” The synth-heavy sound is bright neon, the words subversive, but Butler acts as if no one has ever thought of this dichotomy before.
To say “things go south from there” is to understate considerably. “Peter Pan,” “Chemistry” and the two tracks titled “Infinite Content” are the worst Arcade Fire songs ever. It’s amazing to me that something as goofy and unlistenable as the faux-reggae “Chemistry” ever made it past the rehearsal stage. You simply won’t believe how bad it is. And Butler sings his lyrical pun on “Infinite Content” – in one form a piss-poor punk pastiche and in the other a lazy Sunday acoustic piece – with an unearned sense of self-satisfaction.
The album gets more interesting in its final third, but it couldn’t really get less interesting. I actually like the pulsing love song “Put Your Money on Me,” though its obvious “commercialism is not as good as love” theme is pretty basic, and the slow burner “We Don’t Deserve Love” is the album’s best song. Had they started from there, scrapped everything else and really buckled down, they might have written something worthwhile. As it is, though, Everything Now is remarkably facile and surprisingly limp. It’s a sad and precipitous fall for a once-great band, and proof that if you make a bad record ironically, you’ve still made a bad record.
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The artist formally known as Klayton seems to delight in being hard to predict.
He is the sole member of three projects. As Celldweller, he specializes in epic, genre-busting electronic prog-metal awesomeness. As Circle of Dust, he pummels you with chugging guitar-heavy industrial madness. And as Scandroid, he time-travels to the 1980s and channels the Blade Runner soundtrack for pure retro synth-pop goodness. He’s worked hard over the past few years to establish and separate these identities, even remixing songs from one project in the style of the others, just to delineate them.
So of course, his new Celldweller album, Offworld, sounds like nothing else he’s done. Gone are the hyperactive electronic drums, gone are the bursts of distorted guitar, gone is the almost ADD-quality genre-hopping. Offworld is a quiet, reflective thing, centered mainly on shoegaze-style clean guitar and melancholy atmosphere. It’s still perfectly produced, big-sounding and clear, but the subtle keyboard flourishes and linear, organic guitar that dominate this record are a surprise.
Is it any good? Of course it is. The expansive title track kicks things off with a long instrumental introduction that sets the tone. “How Little I Must Know” is the most naked Klayton has ever allowed himself to be on record – just an electric guitar, a subtle synth and emotional vocals. “The Great Divide” is a splendid single, strummy and memorable. He knocks a cover of the Call’s “Too Many Tears” out of the park, and then positively reinvents Scandroid’s “Awakening with You” as a shoegaze epic. “Into the Fall” is a rewrite of Circle of Dust’s “Embracing Entropy,” and it’s thoroughly unrecognizable.
Offworld is just the right length, too. Seventy-five minutes of this melancholy might have been too much. Klayton stops at 47 minutes, following up the terrific “Last Night on Earth” with a reprise of the title track. As a bonus, he gives us a stunning Ulrich Schnauss remix of “Awakening with You” that is absolutely worth the additional five minutes. This is a successful experiment on Klayton’s part – a Celldweller album that sounds nothing like Celldweller, and yet fits in with the aesthetic he’s built. It blurs the lines between his three projects while forging new paths. In short, it’s Klayton, and I’m still glad to be along for the ride.
Check out Klayton’s work here: https://fixtstore.com.
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Next week, more music with Randy Newman and Dan Wilson. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.