Up in Flames by Manitoba (Review)

If there’s a heaven, I hope that this is the soundtrack.

Usually, when reviewing an album, I approach the process the same way you would approach an unfamiliar dog. Slowly and cautiously, you let yourself get close enough to attempt a gentle pet, but not so close that you can’t run away if necessary. All too often, the rabid bite of disappointment grips my ears and makes future reviews all the more cautious. Rarely, but thankfully, an album greets you heartily with a wagging tail.

Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, The Postal Service’s Give Up, The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender, System of a Down’s Toxicity, and Radiohead’s Kid A, among others, have all warmed my ears with the knowledge that there is still good music being created. Manitoba’s sophomore album, Up in Flames, now joins that healthy echelon.

From the opening cacophony of noise, breached by the heavenly vocals of Dan Snaith, to the absurd yet appropriate fade-out of the last track that spans almost a full minute, this album is a work of beauty. Snaith manages to meld manipulative electronics with warm acoustics — one part Jonny Greenwood, one part Nick Drake. The result sounds like a collection of old records from the year 2020. The fuzzy scratch of vinyl pervades most tracks, but the ever-present electronic beats and synthesized tones remind the listener what year this music was actually made.

Coming from the same school of thought as fellow cacophonists The Polyphonic Spree, Manitoba clearly defies the theory that ​“less is more.” Each track is heavily laden with layer upon layer of instrument, and often each act independently of the overall beat. This extra noise creates a very fluffy cushion for Snaith’s Simon and Garfunkel/​Beta Band type whispering/​singing. The overall effect is that of a thick and cloudy yet vivid dreamscape.

Listing the high points of the album is a daunting task, since I would consider the entire album a high point. However, in this sea of sound, several moments gave me what I like to refer to as a ​“mugasm.”

One such moment occurs several times during the track ​“Bijioux.” The opening of the song is outstanding, consisting of a flourish of music-box type bells, and then cascading into a tsunami of sound. A similar occurrence appears mid-song, where the sound cuts out and reveals a delicate underbelly of bells and flute-type synths. A wave of sound then rises out of the quiet and washes over the listener, surrounding them in a heavenly din that literally dives through them. It was a wonderful use of dynamic contrast.

Another moment occurs twice in the opening of two tracks, ​“Hendrix With K.O.” and ​“Jacknuggeted.” Both open with Snaith’s whispery vocals, and both lay this vocal blanket over a driving beat. For me, this brought memories of a daytime trainride on a beautiful, sunny day. People, places, trees, and lakes all whiz past at an amazing speed, and you’re just blissfully enjoying every eyeful.

A good adjective describing this album would be ​“divine.” Throughout the listening of this album, the listener can easily visualize the world through a fuzzy haze, every moment a blissful joy, every earful and eyeful loaded to the brim. Never do the melodic ideas grow stale or a sound get overused. If there’s a heaven, I hope that this is the soundtrack. Bravo Manitoba!

Written by Guy Thillet.