“We wanted to make the kind of album that’s missing at this time in rock: something that’s just brutal and pounding you over the head every track,” Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra states plainly in the press release for new LP Cope. “Whereas Simple Math was a different palate with each song, a different colour, I wanted this to be black and red the whole time.”
It’s an interesting opening gambit from the Georgian five-piece, who celebrate their 10th birthday this year. Following up Simple Math, the band’s most applauded and commercially successful to date (it’s their only record to chart in the UK), is no easy feat, but for Cope, Hull and co have whipped out the big guns. It’s a cyclonic melange of their idiosyncratic muted guitars, stringent rhythms and acerbic darkness; the orchestral fluff of Simple Math, while pertinent to the group at that juncture, has been amputated, and the stadium indie-rockers favour a standard approach to their music this time around.
That’s not to say it’s ‘standard’ per se, as the combination of Hull’s unique vocal timbre and the empowering rock gumption blend to create something more Puzzle-era Biffy Clyro than cut’n’dried Foo Fighters rock. It’s on the fringes of the genre’s environs; they’re not a wildly experimental outfit, but they don’t take the path well trodden when tackling a well-worn set of conventions. There are still sparks of ingenuity as they flirt with new themes of contentment, absolution and overcoming grief.
Lead single Top Notch apes their earlier efforts like Virgin – it’s a malevolent torrent of grinding axework, peppered with Hull’s horror-howls and the kind of traumatic onslaught that Soylent Green’s crowd-control bulldozers bring: it’s an inescapable, irascible, impending doom. Buckle up and accept your fate. Speaking in terms of Manchester Orchestra’s wider canon, it’s far from groundbreaking, and it feels like more of a bridging cut between Simple Math’s overbearing malice and the scope of hope in Cope. Beginning with the line “There’s two twin deaf kids and they’ve got to make an ungodly decision/ they decide which one gets to leave this place and which one will be staying, to make it,” it’s obviously not one of their cheery paeans (it’s actually a narrative-based ode to fear and determination, by the sounds of things).
Other WMDs in Cope’s arsenal are lighter in instrumentation and thematic tone. The Ocean rekindles memories of early ’00s pop-punk like Yellowcard in its chilled-out riffery and anti-anathema choruses. Every Stone is blissful summer-zephyr rock ditty, as back-to-basics as they come, free of sonic flotsam and jetsam. Indentions has got jaunty plucked guitars and ’80s synths. Indie sea-shanty All That I Really Wanted revels in squibbly-bibbly six-stringers. All these tracks, while not inherently peppy, point towards a cleansed aura. It’s shinier rock, arguably more poppy, that’s dragging the quintet towards the sunlight.
Okay, so perhaps when it comes to scribbling words, Hull’s not mastered being happy. But he’s trying to come to terms with things, and rather than wallowing in puddles of his own tears, he’s contemplating lingering in lagoons of languor and overcoming the shadows of trauma. “Cope, to me, means getting by. It means letting go, and being okay with being okay,” said Hull in that same press release. “You can cope in a positive way when bad things happen, or a negative way, and that blend was a big lyrical theme for me on this album.”
Cope as a whole is a valuable addition to Manchester Orchestra’s ongoing canon. It demonstrates a different side to the band, albeit not drastically so; this frill-less take on their sound is refreshingly raw rock, and when they hint at positivity, that’s when it truly glimmers. Perhaps this, like Top Notch, is a bridge. As the band come to terms with their demons, and use Cope as a coping mechanism, will we see them explore entirely fresh pastures on album number five? Who knows. What we know right now is that though they’re still mining the same vein they have for a decade, they’re still churning out gems too.