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Guitarist Robert McDowell tuning up in between songs. Photo by Krista De La Rosa.
Electric bees swarming in harmony. Tectonic plates slowly grinding over a fault line of pickups. A surging tsunami ridden by Homer’s Sirens as they call Odysseus and his men toward a volatile fate.
Those may seem like abstractions, but the supremely overdriven sound of the new Manchester Orchestra album, Cope—which frontman Andy Hull describes with a single word, “brutal”—puts gravel in their bellies. But what the album truly sounds like is a creative breakthrough for the uncannily hardworking Atlanta quintet that’s propelled by the dual 6-string thrust of Hull and Robert McDowell, childhood friends and kindred spirits who do for post-atomic-age rock guitar what gospel-raised Southern siblings like the Louvin Brothers did for close harmonies.
To listeners casually familiar with the band through breakthrough tunes like 2006’s “Wolves at Night” or 2011’s “Simple Math,” Cope may seem like a radical departure. After all, those hits were fueled by the post-Cobain mantra of alternating loud and soft dynamics in support of melodic pirouettes that soften the edge of Hull’s lyrics.
“A lot of people who've never seen us live think of us as playing pretty music—which we do, and we enjoy,” notes Hull. “But this album is as relentless as our live shows.”
Although Cope does stand up on its hind legs and beat its chest, its noise also comes from mental static. Few songwriters today have Hull’s psychic pipeline into the minds of his characters. His gift for interior perception makes offerings like “The Mansion,” about a lost, hollow-hearted soul, and “The Ocean,” a roiling tribute to futility, seem nakedly genuine and haunted.
Then there’s the gift for hooks, melodies, and harmonies that’s deep in Hull’s and his bandmates’ collective DNA. Manchester Orchestra seems so instinctually adept at upholding those values that they’re able to build a sing-along vibe into the neurosis of “Indentions,” which starts with a church burning and chews on lines like, “It doesn’t matter to me … I tell myself repeatedly/What a nightmare it seemed to honestly think of anything.”
“We’re at a point as a band where the hooks come out naturally in every song,” Hull explains. “We don’t have to think about it. Everybody was on the same page every step of the way in making this album, and as we put together the songs in the studio things just fell into place exactly how they needed to.”
Hull’s voice also lends a buoyance to the band dynamic. He channels his airy tenor into rising and falling melodies—a trick he learned from one of his ’80s and ’90s post-punk heroes, Morrissey, whose hometown of Manchester, England, inspired the group’s name.
Jesus, Dinosaurs, and Pumpkins
Cope’s evolutionary leap was accomplished in part by looking back to those same decades, too—a time when rock guitar’s territory was wide enough to encompass the subterranean growl of the Jesus and Mary Chain, the 6-string howl of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and the frayed harmonic declamations of Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca. Hull and crew even drafted John Agnello—an expert at wrangling the untamable guitars of some of the aforementioned acts, as well as the Screaming Trees, the Breeders, and Kurt Vile—to mix Cope. “John kept saying, ‘This is so My Bloody Valentine—on steroids,’” Hull says, laughing.
But looking ahead to a blank canvas also lit the fire for Cope. “We had come home after touring behind Simple Math, and found ourselves without a record label, wondering what we were going to do next,” Hull recalls. “We had a band meeting about it, and all five of us said, ‘Let’s make something super heavy, something where the guitars are as powerful as the drums and it never slows down—a no-holds-barred rock record.’
“There are only a few super-heavy rock bands with real songwriting out there these days,” he continues. “We wanted to get away from all the trendy electronica and sampling stuff too many bands are doing, and make a great guitar record that doesn’t sound like anything else—like when Led Zeppelin and Hendrix changed music in the ’60s.”
While invoking those two names is bound to raise some hackles among some players, the band’s core mission seems to have been accomplished: Cope is replete with 6-strings that rise and ebb but never lose their power as the songs unfurl. The trick was layering as many as 10 guitar tracks on each tune, all slightly varied in tone and execution so that, even when Hull and McDowell played the same chords, their varied picking, amp choices, and instruments created small differences that make the combined tracks pulse like a hive.