Manic Focus’ fifth studio album ‘Minds Rising’ is gritty, organic, and smashingly fun [Album Review]
After a series of releases under the All Good Records stamp, Manic Focus has stepped out on his own to independently release his latest album Minds Rising. Immediately evident is the LP’s humble ingenuity, soulful melodies, and playful form that feels fun and lighthearted — yet important. Such is the case with the emergent electro-soul genre of EDM, whose ethos carries the historical weight of early nineteen hundreds jazz, along with all it’s socio-political undertones, into the digital age. For the Midwestern electronic producer, born John “JmaC” McCarten, his creative process endeavors to infuse these classic musical elements into new wave rap, hip-hop, and R&B.
The soundscape of McCarten’s fifth full-length album, Minds Rising, represents a culmination of his last two years of work toward a more organic, off-the-cuff aesthetic, as well as his artistic progression since the release of his first LP some five years ago. The result is a multi-dimensional, immersive catalog of Manic Focus’ sonic evolution, complete with smooth vocal samples, heavy-hitting bass lines, and the occasional rowdy rhymes of hip-hop artists. There is so much going on — so many layered and contrasting generic elements — it’s hard to make sense of it all. He manages to craft an album that can be both impromptu and deliberate, both colluding and balanced, both happy and heavy, and remain, above all, wildly-ambitious, expertly-crafted future funk music.
Minds Rising is an album that’s rather difficult to critique, perhaps because it is so wonderfully rich and complex that it’s more fun to jam along with than is to pick apart. There are however two thematic qualities as to why the LP works as seamlessly as it does: close attention to genre, and a dedication to organic instrumentation.
Over the last 5 years, Manic Focus has released four full-length albums, each one displaying marked evolution in sound and approach. JmaC’s influences are apparent and deliberate. His willingness to embrace artistic collaboration so often has given him a grounded understanding of how to chop up and dice funk, dubstep, and jam band ingredients for dance music. In fact, there isn’t one track on Minds Rising that isn’t a collaboration. The entire album is an infectious inventory of cutting-edge hip hop artists and musicians from the burgeoning Chicago scene as well as across the country, including the percussive talents of Lettuce and Break Science’s Adam Deitch, powerful vocals of Jennifer Hartswick, and meticulous production of Late Night Radio.
Beyond that, Manic Focus has become an master at marinating future funk sounds in a heavily hip-hop influenced aesthetic. Take the album’s most recent single, “Habit,” featuring Russ Liquid and The RapperChicks, which he used to tease the album’s release this past week. On it’s surface, the track is an energetic funk anthem, with a masterful three-piece horn section and a deliciously catchy R&B-style chorus line. Something this infectious wouldn’t normally carry a deeper meaning, but the heavy rap verses reveal a more thoughtful, substantive layer underneath. Compound this track with some others on the LP, such “Joy In The Noise,” featuring Psalm One, and the entire album becomes an EDM pipeline into accessing different eras of rap, with nods to late-1980s and early nineties rap as well as to recent figures like Jay-Z and 50 Cent.
Minds Rising is so chock full of ideas, and pulls across so many diverging genres, that one is left utterly baffled as to how they can all be come together into a coherent LP. Chalk it up to his work at incorporating an enhanced collection of live instrumentation for a more organic sound which is reflected on the road, as JmaC has been steadily building his live performance to include additional musicians and more live elements of sound production, with Jacob Barinholtz as a mainstay on the drums, and the rare fused act of Manic Science with his funk duo buddies, Break Science. By incorporating original, sample-free recordings in the studio, this live ethos carries over to the new album in impromptu-styled tracks with jam band appeal, such as “Rage Fits Perfect,” and even in the more chill track, “Stochastic Resonance.”
“Drop In,” the album’s opener, is one such fun and off-handed track, produced with Marvel Years and Chris Karns, which seems totally spur-of-the-moment and unplanned, and yet is clearly premeditated, rehearsed, and cleanly mastered. With a smooth guitar lead in, a tick and a hack of the drum, add in some vocal chops, and a swelling horn section, the song progresses into a masterpiece of organic elements coming together flawlessly around a reoccurring hip-hop vocal motif. Each added sonic layer becomes a new piece of the story that wraps the listener up into new plot lines rooted not in words and lyrics, but inside musical form itself.
One might, therefore, go as far as to call Minds Rising a quintessential Postmodern text, in its commitment to craft and musical convention, in its understanding of form and genre, in how it uses sound to piece together past decades of history into a thoughtful, abridged, and well-produced contemporary story. But what stands out most about the album is how much damn fun it is. Minds Rising is, more than anything else, a smashing good time. It’s gritty and soft, bright and heavy, organic, light-hearted, at times deeply profound, and vividly colorful.
Stream the full Minds Rising LP below.