O2 ABC Glasgow, 2/10/14
Their fourth album having been released in April, Manchester Orchestra return to the UK touring Cope. The record itself is one of self-affirmation; it pushes aside the vulnerable and melancholic style that has shaped the band in its past with a promise of eleven tracks of “unrelenting and unapologetic” rock.
It seems that Andy Hull is a man of his word, for he and the rest of the band show no mercy in their live performance. The screaming feedback is brought to a silence by ‘Pride’, opening appropriately with Hull singing the words “finally, I felt the calming breeze”. Just as the audience become lulled by the honest nature of his presence, they are pounded by the unified, continual beating of drum skins and thrashing of heavy-gauge guitar strings. However, in this live context, Manchester Orchestra’s intention–to shout where they once whispered–is emphasised to mixed effect.
On the one side, the band possesses a new energy that comes from the raw aggression of Cope. Songs such as ‘The Ocean’ evoke a fist-clenching, shout-along sentiment that will be regarded by some fans as a refreshing departure from the more subtle qualities that characterise their previous releases. In line with this, numerous old songs are made heavier to attempt to create a fluid transition between material: ‘I’ve Got Friends’ crescendos into a two-minute outro of frenzied instrumentation and wild shouts, while ‘I Can Barely Breathe’ no longer has sparse verses or dynamic changes but rather a constant force that confronts the audience.
However, it is clear that this change is a self-reaction, making the group more defined by their genre rather than a definer of it. Formerly merging various elements of indie, emo and rock music to create an engaging sound which straddled genres, they have now, through their own proclamation, bound themselves to just one: alternative-rock. By doing this, Manchester Orchestra have destroyed the illusion that made them so appealing. Though they attempt to create a sound which is “brutal and pounding you over the head every track”, the beating rapidly loses force and grows tiresome quickly. With the exception of ‘Top Notch’, the guitar parts are repetitive, adopting the general formula of palm-muted verses and heavily-strummed power chords. While Andy Hull proves his capacity for possessing power and aggression in his voice, the emotion that it usually carries is lost through this same repetition of style.
Perhaps because this stylistic change for Manchester Orchestra seems to be an entirely deliberate one (as opposed to a general, and expected, evolution of their sound), it feels very unnatural. This is only fully realised when their new material is set alongside their old in its unchanged state. The intimacy of ‘Colly Strings’ draws the audience into a powerful personal exchange with Hull, which is then shattered by a return to the impersonal, comparatively apathetic Cope.
What is clear from this contrast is that the group have created somewhat of an identity crisis for themselves. By setting out with such strong intentions to create a record that is unfaltering in its force and so markedly different from its predecessors, Manchester Orchestra appear to be making a stand against their introverted former self. It makes for a frustrating spectacle, as glimpses of the natural, emotional depth that they are capable of are shrouded by forced, repetitive rock. Fortunately, Hull closes the set with an enchanting performance of ‘Where Have You Been?’, prophetically posing (and answering) the same question that many fans of his more intimate work would have been asking throughout the set.
Their recent release, titled ‘Hope’, is a full-length acoustic reworking of’ Cope and this at least shows an awareness of the way in which the initial release was problematically incongruent with the sound that they had developed over the past three albums. It is worth mentioning that Bad Books, a side project consisting of Andy Hull, Robert McDowell and Chris Freeman from Manchester Orchestra, as well as Kevin Devine and Benjamin Homola, feature as the supporting band throughout the Cope UK tour. Perhaps desires for a major change of musical direction should be expressed through side projects like these rather than attempting to entirely redefine the nature of a band that is already well-established. Thankfully, ‘Hope’ implies that Manchester Orchestra are set to return to what comes naturally to them rather than forcing something which does not. Let’s hope this is the case.