Pillbox

Manic Focus delivers hip-shaking grooves

Granted that this is a broad over-simplification, there are typically two kinds of musical artists: those who achieve popularity and success on the back of one breakout hit, and those who slowly build a following by consistently releasing quality songs. Chicago-based electro-soul producer Manic Focus (birth name John McCarten) rests comfortably in the latter category. Classically trained on the piano at a young age, McCarten has been blending hip-hop beats with funky bass lines since 2011, releasing a new album each year that improves upon the last. While many of his early releases sounded like emulations of more successful artists in the genre, such as his Liberated Music label-mate GRiZ, the release of his fourth album Cerebral Eclipse, available for free download on his SoundCloud page, demonstrates that Manic Focus is establishing a sound much more his own.

Throughout Cerebral Eclipse, Manic Focus makes interesting use of samples that highlight some of the best elements of the electro-soul genre. “Just Another Fool” samples a blues guitar riff straight out of the haunted Mississippi Delta sounds of Robert Johnson, blending it with futuristic electronic bass that would make the Devil rather shake his hips than steal your soul.

“Space Scholar Synthesis,” a collaboration with producer Michal Menert, opens with soulful horns reminiscent of Motown before dropping into a blasting groove. Halfway through the track, every element falls into an abyss before roaring back into a triumphant drop. These kinds of exciting moves are one thing that electronic music has over traditional instruments: Without the power of a computer, artists don’t have such total control over the sound or nearly as many options of places to take the listener.

Electro-soul is known for being one of the most fun and danceable subgenres of EDM, and Manic Focus certainly delivers plenty of party-starting grooves on Cerebral Eclipse. “Rooster” features a funk that tangles around itself, the bass dancing up and down the register.

“Bumpin’ in the Voodoo,” a collaboration with saxophone-wielding Big Gigantic frontman Dominic Lalli, blazes right out of the speaker. Funky bass blasts, blaring horns, and an attitude-filled vocal sample makes this track an irresistible booty shaker. Lalli brings an incredibly catchy sax riff as well as a flaming solo to the table, taking “Voodoo” to a pretty sublime stratosphere.

“Travelin’ On My Mind,” a collaboration with jazz-electronic group The Coop, makes great use of all the participating artists’ strengths. Manic Focus provides a walking slap bass line and trip-hop drums, which The Coop then fill out with a lush soundscape of organs, wandering guitars, and shaking horns.

While there are plenty of bangers on Cerebral Eclipse, it is also in the diversity of moods that the album succeeds. “On The Horizon” floats in a calm ambiance, with a vocal sample that croons “I’m as high as I wanna be.” The track builds into a drop that proves quite calm, merely speeding things up a little without ruining the feel of the song.

Album closer “Life Goes On,” which features GRiZ, brings the album in for a soft landing after the turbulence of “Bumpin’ in the Voodoo.” Bright and watery organs ring over smooth jazz guitar, with playful drums that will keep you bobbing your head. A testament to the power of creative collaboration, this track is actually a decent departure from the typical sound of both artists in a very positive way. Sometimes two heads really are better than one.

Manic Focus has been a rising name in the genre since he arrived, and has certainly been getting places quickly. Last year, he opened for Gramatik in Pittsburgh, and this year, he is co-headlining with electronic hip-hop duo Break Science at Mr. Small’s Theatre on Nov. 6. Perhaps next year he’ll be solo billed. Given the trajectory his career is currently taking, I don’t see why not.