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How Manchester Orchestra found peace within grief

08 April 2023, 19:00

As Manchester Orchestra journey through grief on The Valley of Vision, Alisdair Grice speaks with lead vocalist Andy Hull about utilising voice as an instrument, and their expansive creativity in world-building.

“When used slowly, for meditation and prayer, these pages have often been used by God’s spirit to kindle my dry heart,” is the endorsement given by theologian Mark Dever on Arthur Bennet’s seminal collection of prayers titled “The Valley Of Vision”.

The same words can be used to similar effect when describing Manchester Orchestra’s latest EP of the same name. Revelling in meditative soundscapes and joyful devotion, the band’s leading man Andy Hull uses his calmative voice and commitment to song-craft to devise one of the most commanding and career-defining EPs of the year.

As contemporaries flood their latest projects with efforts in maximalism and overbearing production, Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull sits down to disclose the importance of stripping things back, taking time away and revelling in the minutiae. This and more is on naked display in the haunting new EP, capturing the band’s collective journey through grief and back.

After serendipitously uncovering a small book of ‘Puritan Prayers and Devotions’ he received as a Christmas gift from his mother - assumed lost - from the bottom of a drawer, Manchester Orchestra’s dulcet-voiced leading man took shelter in the words on the cover. Emblazoned with the stark, polysemic title ‘The Valley Of Vision’, it pulled on a certain strand of Hull’s creativity that had remained dormant since he soundtracked the revolutionary film Swiss Army Man back in 2017.

For Hull, The Valley Of Vision is a gateway. Existing in a world that was established by 2017’s A Black Mile To The Surface, compounded in 2021’s The Million Masks Of God, and to be continued in this most recent titular project, he has long been intertwining storylines of unnamed, grief-stricken protagonists throughout these three records. Where Black Mile created and established characters and ideas that Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell conceived, Masks sought to flesh out these characters’ journey, underpinned by an overbearing sense of grief that painted each melody with formidable weight. The breakout indie hits from this record – namely “Bed Head” and “Telepath” – filled rooms across the US with wonder; a sense of unified elation that combined Hull’s soothing crooning with swathes of chorus-pedal guitar moments, and allowed him to lay bare both his soul alongside his mourning brother-in-arms McDowell, who throughout the recording process saw his father lose a long battle with cancer.


As Masks was lauded as “their most cinematic and heartfelt record to date”, premiering on countless year-end lists and sneaking into every indie devotee’s main rotation, Hull never for once believed the next record would have to outdo the last. At least not in the manner the status quo expected. Would the Atlanta outfit outperform itself? Go one better than Masks and fill each chorus with unforgettable earworms and ever-more-earnest lyricism? Or would they rest on the foundations of a near two-decade-spanning career and take the middle road with their absorbing indie-rock? Well if The Valley Of Vision is anything to go by, the answer is neither. Away with the arresting shroud of guitars and stadium-driven drumming, the record is the calmest, most texturally proficient piece of work that Manchester Orchestra have put out in years.

Steered not by guitar-focused melodies, The Valley Of Vision strips the band back to their bare bones, employing a technique they employed in Black Mile: “intensity without the volume”. It echoes the confounding melodies of 2021’s “Bed Head” on “The Way”, but dials each component back 50% to let the moment occupy a different space, eschewing themes of sorrow for rebirth. This stern future-forward attitude is evident on nearly every track, even the oxymoronic “Rear View”, which opens with Hull emphasising “The fire in the rear view is getting smaller”, setting the scene neatly for an overtly positive follow-up, sharing with his audience that perhaps after the last four years of grief, peace is finally in sight.

The EP, released on March 10th, has been described as ‘ambitious’, ‘gently sad’ and a record ‘everyone needs to see’, however, Hull is quick to mark these critics’ opinions with an asterisk. “I try really hard not to look at what's going on. Not because I'm some badass, but mostly because I’m very, very sensitive.” Despite his empathic qualities, it is a noticeably novel experience listening to The Valley Of Vision when compared to its predecessor Masks, and Hull is more than ready to brace any feedback that gets directed back to him. “Maybe some people didn't think we were going in this direction, but I do think that everyone knows that we're going to be trying something new and not exactly what we've done before. Personally, I'm extremely proud of it and really happy that it's out. I'm proud of us for following through with attempting something different. And it's like really opened up an exciting idea for the future [of the band].”

Hull however, is not unfamiliar with leaps of faith and unexpected U-turns. One of the most outstanding and surprising projects the outfit ever took under their wing was the soundtrack for famous directing duo the Daniels’ (of Oscar sweeping Everything Everywhere All At Once fame) Swiss Army Man, a moving tale that follows a flatulent corpse and its suicidal keeper on a journey that results in the formation of a slow, festering friendship. Despite its curious premise and toilet-humour-heavy script, it has become a cult classic over time thanks to the gravitational pull of the Daniel’s world-building direction and the daring appeal of Hull’s soundtrack.

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“I think there were immediate parallels with Swiss Army Man. Using the tools that we learned from the film, specifically my voice not just being the lyrics and lead vocal, but using my voice as an instrument allowed us to get creative. We learned how to use voices by pitching them, modulating them, harmonising them and finding specific reverbs.” He continues, “and really making use of every moment that was happening on screen was a big lesson. If these guys care about six seconds as much as they care about a long montage moment in the movie, then we should be caring about our music in the same way. So I think the fundamental tools that we used making that movie for 13 months started paying dividends into our work immediately after.”

Living proof that a band can continue to evolve and adapt over a 15-year career, Manchester Orchestra took on the responsibility with ceremony, and in their wake created an unforgettable soundscape to showcase The Daniel’s brilliance. With its parallels so clear in The Valley Of Vision, the often secretive Hull further reveals the impact he wanted the EP to have on its listeners. “We really wanted the whole thing to feel like you're floating and having this experience where you meditate and take yourself out of it, and we do that by still having great melodies, song structure and lyrics, you know? We wanted to make it bigger without having to use loud guitars and big drops.”

Utilising the knowledge that their output can be experienced in a more multimedia-driven format, the release of The Valley Of Vision saw a conjoined film, directed by Issac Deitz (the pair having previously worked together on 2021’s ‘Telepath’ video) that spans the 26-minute duration of the EP – Manchester Orchestra’s shortest project to date. However, these tracks are brought to life in more dimensions than one, with Deitz’s visionary use of VR in play to create an immersive environment that can be experienced with or without VR goggles. The video depicts transient tableaus of urban and natural environments, seemingly centred around a heart preserved in a rectangular block of ice. When questioned about the creation of the film, Hull shares that there was an intention from the very embryonic stages of The Valley Of Vision to create a visual counterpart that would capture its breadth and vision.

“The short answer is yes.” He reveals whether this was the plan from the start. “We really loved Isaac’s work and how he had taken a very small kernel of an idea [on “Telepath”] and turned it into this really moving story. The only instruction I had to give him was that I didn't want it to be hyper-narrative-driven. I would love for it to complement the music, not take away from it, and I'd love for the music to complement it and not take away from his film.”

He continues. “We had a couple of thematic conversations about it and the storyline that's been running from Black Mile through Masks and through this, and what could potentially conclude with a big finale. He really drew on a lot of those themes without us having to say anything about it. So Hopefully it's become a moment where people can zone out and feel like they're focused on something longer than a couple of minutes.”

When watching the film, there is a clear intention behind every motif Deitz employs, and the unified vision between the visuals and the soundscape. From the deliberate, reserved piano refrain of “Capital Karma” being paired with depictions of a demolished wooden hut, to the fire-laden imagery of destroyed caravan homes and pick-up trucks in the downbeat “The Way” as Hull sings “Huffing fire and holy smoke”, there is a thematic cohesiveness that could only be the result of these two being past creative collaborators. This intrinsic understanding bleeds into the snowy “Lose You Again”, where we see the sun rise over a snowy mountain landscape as Hull deliberates over themes of **self-redemption and gratitude. **However at the zenith of “Rear View”, perhaps the only track where Hull and McDowell let the ever-forming bubbles finally burst above the surface, Deitz inserts a flurry of imagery of burning pedestals, a driverless car driving through previously visited panoramas and ultimately a transfixed child, alone in a room. The entire runtime is mesmerising, portraying themes of melancholy, hope and despair without the need for narrative or characters. The chemistry between the two creatives is both magnetic and collapsing, a match made in heaven that has the power to take us to hell.

However, Manchester Orchestra’s reputation for the last 10 years has not been built solely around their fascinating and subversive approach to ‘indie’, but — as most fandoms are well aware — their effortlessly relatable lyrics that often seal the deal, turning a one-album band into a lifetime band. Hull’s capacity as a veritable wordsmith is well-documented, but when coinciding with his expansive world-building, he morphs into a creative powerhouse like no other. After a handful of listens to both Masks and The Valley Of Vision, the parallels start to surface, fighting to be heard by avid listeners.

This becomes particularly evident in both albums’ terminus. “The Internet” (the finale of Masks) is a formidable ode to absolution and mortality, seeing Hull’s character come face to face with his own ending, fading out to the defeated coda of “And all this time, I thought I was right”, whilst the last track on The Valley Of Vision, “Rear View” sees Hull turn this exact refrain into more of a war cry; a declaration of intention and realisation. Hull explains, “Those lyrics are said in two different ways. At the end of Masks, it’s almost a finite moment, having a life ending and looking around at an afterlife and understanding that whatever we think it will be like, we're all gonna be wrong. So that was happening in an almost eternal moment. But in “Rear View”, it's a smaller moment. But still big emotionally and personally. It’s about taking stock of the future, not the end. And hopefully having a moment of positivity.”


These winks to previous work however are not exclusive to these two albums. With 20 years of world-building behind them, entire film soundtracks credited and seven immersive records to their name, Manchester Orchestra has been intertwining one continuous story together since the mid-10s, only ever drip-feeding fragments to the press and fans. Hull elaborates on this secrecy, saying “Masks actually had a lot of Easter Eggs. Mentions and moments and little winks at every record that we had made up until then. This one is the same world that we're talking about from Black Mile. And these are the same characters. But I don't need anybody to ever figure that out. It's just the subtext that helps me write and be more interested in what I'm writing. So it's more than just a story to me, as there are a lot of deep connections as to how the characters have gotten to where they are. But to lift the curtain a little bit, it all connects.”

Hull laughs, shrugging off the attempt to dive deeper, and continues. “Maybe eventually I'll do what Jay-Z did and write the Decoded book where he went through every lyric and finally told everybody. But I don't like when my favourite songwriters tell people exactly what things are, because really it is up to the listener, and I don't consider myself some grand mastermind. People always find their own.” Having recently had Phoebe Bridgers offer her vocals to Black Mile’s “The Gold”, he passes comment on his admiration for her as a songwriter. “She is painting a really heavy picture. She uses a lot of really simple techniques. She’s saying ‘Here's what's happening, and here's what I'm doing, but also, this is about everything else.’ She's a genius, man.”

Due to play London’s iconic Union Chapel in early May for two back-to-back dates, Hull promises it to be a momentous occasion, with a special guest appearance. “For those shows, we’re actually bringing Isaac [Deitz], and he's going to document them. We’re also bringing our engineer and producer over and we're going to live record them and hope to make a really dope, introspective career moment. We're really, really looking forward to those shows.”

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When questioned about how the magic calmness of The Valley Of Vision will be recreated live, and sprinkled throughout their live show, Hull answers with the acuity he has come to be known for. “After we made our record Cope, and when we were working on Black Mile, we made a decision that we were no longer going to let the worry of how we would pull something off live take away from creating what we heard in our heads. My favourite bands don't sound the exact same on record as they do live. And I’ve always felt like our songs continue to evolve as time goes on. We still play songs from our first record, but they don't really sound like those songs anymore, because they've evolved and become the new version of it.”

Hearkening back to the attitude that has long kept Manchester Orchestra at the forefront of the indie ‘wave’ and ever-honing their skills, Hull taps into the reason that the band of 20 years sees no signs of being tossed aside. “With this record coming a few years after a really hard period of time that still lingers and hangs a shadow, I’ve realised it's not as dark of a shadow anymore. And I think maybe having a moment to recognise that, instead of still talking about the power of that shadow hanging over us is why The Valley Of Vision exists.”

Through all this, one of the most unique skills that Hull and Manchester Orchestra possess is their candid ability to discuss grief. From the hypnotic childlike unease of Black Mile to the death-via-life wonderment of Masks, The Valley Of Vision renders itself the perfect addition to the visionary Trimurti of records that Manchester Orchestra has assembled over the past five years. They tell the story of creation, preservation and destruction with divine propriety, stirring any errant listeners to face their own reality, warts and all.

The Valley Of Vision is available now on vinyl and CD via Loma Vista Recordings

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