What makes a great album? Is it impressive musicality that jumps out at you with every note and melody? Is it a cohesive vibe or comprehensive narrative that feels both personal and empathetic? Or maybe it’s how well an artist pours their emotions into the music, whatever those emotions may be. Of course, stories about romance and triumph are easy targets.
That’s why themes of love and loss are among the most common in the creative world — they’re relatable. However, capturing the feeling of a manic episode on an electronic album almost entirely void of lyrical content? Not so easy.
But, somehow, Denver-based producer Manic Focus has done exactly that on his latest LP, Never Not Blue; the album is a pointedly scattered journey through mania, peppered with blues influence and electronic soundscapes that embody a freeform approach to creativity and radical self-acceptance.
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“With Never Not Blue, I wanted to capture what a manic episode feels like,” John McCarten, AKA Manic Focus, said in an exclusive interview with 303 Magazine. “Even if you’ve never experienced mental illness, I wanted to provide some insight.”
These exploratory themes are, in many ways, a return to form for McCarten, who originally began Manic Focus with a similar mission — to capture the fleeting experience of a manic episode through unlikely sonic pairings and electronic production grounded in blues influence.
When McCarten first began the Manic Focus project, he had two distinct objectives. Firstly, he wanted to “create a bridge between classic blues music and modern electronic, that jumps over all the genres in between.” Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he wanted to explore the confused emotions of a manic mental state. Hints the name, “Manic Focus.”
That was the entire ethos of Manic Focus when McCarten began the project amidst multiple college dropouts due to intense manic episodes, which made studying almost impossible. Chemistry may not have made sense to the young producer in the thralls of heightened mania, but music certainly did.
Mania is a difficult thing to understand, especially when you’re going through it. Thankfully, music allowed McCarten to be honest with himself, even when his mind was playing tricks on him. “I think the most important part about being a musician is just being honest with yourself,” McCarten said. “Being truly honest about how you feel and being thoughtful about the music you create and project to the world is incredibly important.”
This creative honesty remains at the forefront of the Manic Focus project, which has seen many shapes and sizes throughout the past decade. Although, his new album, Never Not Blue, is more direct in both sound and approach than some of his previous records.
Never Not Blue is segmented into three distinct “stages,” which each represent a specific stage of a manic episode. This story, however, has a happier ending.
Stage 1: Hypomania
The tracks in Never Not Blue’s first stage, “Hypomania,” are the sort of blues-inspired tunes that long-time Manic Focus fans will feel right at home with.
“Illa Mind” featuring Marvel Years, the first proper song on Never Not Blue, features some killer bass lines, paired with twangy, swamp-blues style guitar riffs amidst some soulful vocal samples, which come together for a Louisiana Bayou alligator-chasing adventure soundtrack. The following track, “You Do You,” continues in much the same vein, although the slide guitar dominates the blues-oriented banger this time around.
Speaking on his blues-inspired sound, McCarten reminisced on his early days as a producer.
“I originally began working blues music into my songs for two reasons. One, because I just love the blues. It’s the foundation of so much modern music, especially rock and roll and funk. Two, because no one else [in the EDM scene] was doing it.”
He’s got a point. Back in the early 2010s, EDM was largely rooted in pop melodies and the occasional funk groove, a sound which Manic Focus was constantly likened to. But, according to McCarten, that wasn’t the most accurate comparison. “When I first started releasing music and doing the blues electronic thing, almost everyone was like, ‘oh yeah, he’s doing that funk thing,’” McCarten said. “But I wasn’t sampling funk records. I was sampling blues records.”
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Stage 2: Acute Mania
Although Never Not Blue begins as an homage to Manic Focus’s early come-up, the album quickly developes into a much more complex representation of McCarten’s artistic evolution throughout the last decade — including the traditional dubstep bangers that play out during Never Not Blue’s “Stage 2: Acute Mania.”
According to the album’s narrator, a robotic voice resembling A Tribe Called Quest’s classic narrator on Midnight Marauders, this manic stage often includes “a drastic increase of energy and confidence” that might cause “a disconnect from reality.” As soon as “Blamma” hits your speakers, it all makes sense.
“Blamma” is a disorienting, glitchy banger that takes off running and never slows down. It’s the strange sound of a UFO crash landing on an enemy planet amidst alien warfare — alarming, high-stakes and chaotically loud.
If “Blamma” is the soundtrack to McCarten’s crash landing, then “Trouble” is a song of all-out-warfare; a fight for survival against all odds. As the listener attempts to hold on to their last string of sanity amidst distressing alarm signals and screeching bass drops, the war wages on.
Stage 3: Delirious Mania
The “Delirious Mania” stage is one of confusion and heightened disorientation. During this stage, reality often becomes just beyond reach, taking the imaginary shape of a desert mirage. In many ways, the “delirious stage” is the most illusionary one — filled with false promises and a mental sleight of hand.
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Arguably the most experimental section of Never Not Blue, the three tracks in the “Delirious Mania” stage are deep, left-field bass bangers that you can feel in your bones. This is especially true on “Here For It,” a bouncy balancing act that strings together elements of melodic songwriting and trap aesthetics. “Here For It” is like a good magic trick — you never know what’s going to happen next.
“When you’re doing a magic trick, you’re guiding people towards a finale that only the magician knows, really,” McCarten said. “That’s kind of what dance music is all about.” Well, it’s a good thing McCarten knows a thing or two about magic tricks.
Although McCarten’s love for magic dates back to his early childhood, his love for the craft blossomed when he began working in a magic shop in the Mall of America in Minneapolis during his late teen years. It was there that he sharpened his performance skills and sleight-of-hand abilities as he chased that shock and awe reaction from tourists and regulars alike. To this day, McCarten continues to give his audience that same feeling. The only difference is that now, he’s accomplishing this through his music.
“When I’m playing sets, I do try to replicate that sort of shock for my audience and give them moments they weren’t expecting. There’s definitely magic in a good set.”
Stage 4: The Healing Stage
The fourth and final stage of Never Not Blue, “The Healing Stage,” diverges slightly from a traditional manic episode. Instead of giving into the depressive experiences that usually follow manic phases, McCarten gets back in his ship and sails away from the war-torn world of mania he arrived in at the beginning of the record.
The last few tracks, “Good Intentions,” “Buoyant,” “Brassive Attack” and “Desynchronization” are upbeat, optimistic tales of major musicality and creative intention. McCarten chooses to end Never Not Blue on a positive moment — an encouraging note to his fans to keep on keeping on, matter how difficult circumstances may be.
Music has always been a great healer for McCarten, and he hopes Never Not Blue serves that same purpose for his audience. “I hope that Never Not Blue helps people heal in some way,” McCarten said. “I want people to know that if you’re having trouble with mental illness, you’re not alone. I’ve been there too.”
Never Not Blue is a triumphant tale of self-discovery that reads like an open-ended love letter to McCarten’s younger self — a letter that says “being bipolar sucks. Let’s make good music anyways.”
Listen to Never Not Blue, below.