Manchester Orchestra do not fall easily into any category. The Georgia (the American state, not the eastern European nation) five-piece, led by hirsute lead singer Andy Hull, are unafraid of change and willing to constantly refresh their sound; elements of a multitude of styles can be heard in their albums to date, from rock to country to ambience to folk. Simple Math, their third studio album released after a barrage of EP releases since Mean Everything to Nothing came out in 2009, reflects this enthusiasm for experimentation, but doesn’t sacrifice the climactic stop-and-gos that have made their albums memorable and engaging.
At their best, the group are a whirlwind of musical peaks and troughs, returning from silent breaks with breathtakingly loud choruses incorporating layered vocals, pounding drums and wailing synths. It takes a scant three tracks for this familiar style to emerge, the finale of ‘Pensacola’ awash with harmony and power as it reaches a deafening, wonderful climax. What Simple Math does well is encapsulated in these final moments: able to create a finely detailed wall of sound to rival Arcade Fire’s, Manchester Orchestra always seem to be at their best when they’re going hell for leather. The central problem with Simple Math, however, is that this style is not deployed often enough to sate the appetites of their loyal fans, nor do their new forays really grip enough to draw in a multitude of new listeners.
This isn’t to say that the Atlanta band have hit a creative wall, nor that their third album is a poor imitation of glories past. Indeed, the quantity of new ideas is impressive, and at points the record is able to compliment the aforementioned, established, ferocious sound with fresh touches: hear the deft use of strings in ‘Pale Black Eye’ or the swaying, bass-led intro to the title track.
The real issue is that for every new idea which works, there’s one which fails to cohere. The Minus The Bear-esque whiny synths on ‘Apprehension’ feel more like a sound borrowed than created, and there are a few occasions where Simple Math strays into sounds already mastered by other acts. Consequently, we are constantly reminded of other groups who have trodden these paths before, and can’t help but feel that Manchester Orchestra would be better served further honing the sound which has gotten them this far instead of cribbing ideas from other well-established bands.
The perpetual revitalisation of their sound makes Manchester Orchestra one of the most intriguing and eminently listenable bands currently working. But the same fervent desire to innovate which makes them such a strongly-supported group can also cause frustrating lapses in quality on record. Of course a lapse by MO’s high standards still makes for a pretty decent tune, but their moments of brilliance are double-edged, as we often wish they would stick to what they do best, at least for the time being. The simple fact is that trying to jimmy so many different sounds onto one album would be tough for any band, and Hull’s boys have partially fallen victim to their own overabundance of ideas.
But what we must admire is that any band can be accused of trying too hard to augment their music. Simple Math doesn’t quite hang together; like a Christmas tree burdened with too many baubles, it swings and sways a bit too much, and although it never completely topples, there’s simply too much attached to it.
When Manchester Orchestra get it right, it would take a concrete pair of ears not to enjoy their exuberant vocals and thudding finales, but unfortunately their third record acts as an emblem of a time-honoured maxim. Their eyes, or in this case ears, are too big for their stomachs, and everyone ends up feeling a little bloated and overfull as a result. Next time, they should try operating on a smaller plate: they could excel at haute cuisine, but here have chosen something closer to a fry-up. You might feel sated, but you won’t be wholly satisfied.