Manchester Orchestra Realize Their Vision
The Atlanta alt-rockers discuss their latest album, The Valley of Vision, and its VR film counterpartPhoto by Shervin Lainez Music Features Manchester Orchestra
Virtual reality was once a niche phenomenon. With large companies like Sony and Oculus leading the pack of VR gaming, and the rise of popular, Guitar-Hero-indebted titles like Beat Saber, it has slowly yet unequivocally infiltrated pop culture to the point of omnipresence. It’s so universally recognizable that beloved television shows like Bob’s Burgers have entire episodes revolving around it. Still, its ubiquity has seeped into one of the most unlikely places: indie rock.
The Atlanta alt-rockers Manchester Orchestra are harnessing it as another tool to fully realize their artistic vision. Their latest album, the aptly titled The Valley of Vision, is accompanied by a short VR film of the same name. During the recording sessions for 2021’s The Million Masks of God, filmmaker Isaac Deitz showed up at the studio. Deitz made the music video for the tender Million Masks cut “Telepath,” and he and the band struck each other as kindred spirits who wanted to share their art in novel ways. That’s when it dawned on frontman Andy Hull to collaborate with Deitz on an album and film that spoke to each other.
“The more we talked about it and thought about how we could uniquely find a way to present it and film it, we realized people really aren’t making this stuff,” Hull explains. “What’s really cool about it is you don’t have to have VR headsets in order to experience it. We wanted to give the fans an opportunity to experience it in multiple ways.”
The film component can be viewed with or without VR, which is particularly advantageous for guitarist Robert McDowell, who represses the urge to vomit any time he wears an Oculus Rift. “I’m going to eventually have to watch it and just be sick through the entire thing,” he says. “I’ve been able to experience it on the computer, but I’m jealous of everyone who gets to really live inside of it.”
The Valley of Vision is the shortest Manchester Orchestra record yet by a significant margin; it’s composed of only six songs, clocking in at just over 26 minutes. Regardless, its brevity doesn’t make it any less ambitious, especially considering its interdisciplinary, multimedia mindset. As both Hull and McDowell explain, the new album extends the narrative laid out on their previous two entries, A Black Mile to the Surface and The Million Masks of God.
Although they explicitly confirm its connection to those two LPs, they’re reluctant to say anything further about it. “You don’t want to tell everybody exactly what they’re seeing,” Hull says to justify his ambiguity. “It was important for us to have the listener or viewer interpret their own journey through it.” McDowell concurs: “The great thing about songs and lyrics is they mean so many different things to so many different people, depending on what they’re going through in life. I don’t want to be too specific on things because I don’t want to indirectly define what it means to someone who needs to experience it in that way.”
However, The Valley of Vision conveys its motifs in subtle ways: through the verdant, deciduous imagery, its interweaving portrayals of natural decay and idyllic vistas, the harmony that hangs between youth and old age. Whereas its predecessor delved into heavy themes like the loss of family members and followed a character named the Angel of Death, The Valley of Vision is more tranquil and at peace with itself. It signifies resolution through liminality. “It feels like a place of floating and gratitude,” Hull muses. “The last record for Manchester Orchestra was dealing with some weighty, traumatic experiences that we had gone through. The whole time we were working on this, it felt like it carried far more hope, even in the title of it, The Valley of Vision. It’s hard to know what’s on the other side of that hill when you’re in the valley.”
Despite the fact that they have a record literally called HOPE (the acoustic iteration of 2014’s thrashing COPE), the quartet’s latest brims with that unerring, earnest conviction. Even aside from its filmic sibling, The Valley of Vision expresses as much through its quieter sonic atmosphere. It’s rife with acoustic guitars and spacious levity, a rarity for a band often associated with distortion and hard-hitting drums. Take the opening track, “Capital Karma,” and the way it unfolds piano lines and a muted kick-drum pulse, or the penultimate offering, “Lose You Again,” and its stacked vocal harmonies and soft finger-plucking. If Brian Eno made music for airports, then Manchester Orchestra have made music for childhood bedrooms, places that conjure memories long past and an uncertainty of what lies ahead.
This isn’t the first time Hull and McDowell have worked in a visual medium before. In 2016, they composed the score for Swiss Army Man, a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe and directed by the Daniels duo, who are best known for the buzzy, multiversal Oscar darling Everything Everywhere All at Once. The key difference, though, is that Swiss Army Man saw the bandmates making music for a film, whereas The Valley of Vision is a film being made for music; the roles of inspiration have been reversed.
“Every little moment matters,” Hull says. “We’d spent a month working on a 13-second clip for Swiss Army Man trying to just nail it.” He continues: “When you’re scoring somebody’s movie, that’s their vision, and you’re a collaborator. But with Manchester Orchestra, this is something that we’re all really hands on with. Trying to pull something off like this excites us, to try and do something different.” One could say (terrible album-title pun incoming) this is the valley of their vision this time (I’m not sorry).
Hull found this process liberating, as it unbound him and McDowell from the conventional album format. While they were working on it, they were unsure what to exactly call it. An EP? A full-length album? No one’s quite sure, but they’re going with the latter option for now. “What was so exciting about this was that it was six songs, and it went against the natural thing that we would normally do,” Hull explains. “Not having to have this 11-song album format was really freeing.”
The way this record flouts typical album standards mirrors its transitory essence; it’s a bridge to somewhere new, the connective tissue between the darkness of The Million Masks of God and whatever awaits on the other end. What is on that other end, exactly? Hull and McDowell would rather not pull the curtain, each offering deliberately vague responses, but McDowell says that this album is “definitely influencing how we are looking forward to making music in the future.” When I probe Hull for more details, where The Valley of Visions leads to, he laughs. “Well, I could never tell you that!” For now, however, we can appreciate this in-between state. Life scarcely provides clear answers, and neither does The Valley of Vision, but that ambiguity is part of the beauty of both. You can look at each like a reflective pool, and find whatever it is you see there, completely different every time.