On his debut album as Mana, Italian producer Danielle Mana spins electronic tales of mystery and imagination on Seven Steps Behind. Mana previously recorded as Vaghe Stelle, but adopted the new eponymous moniker with his debut EP Creature in 2017. Released on the usually beat-happy label Hyperdub, there are actually few beats in sight here, as Mana eschews the structure of electronic beat-based music to sculpt a more free-flowing narrative that’s untethered from the grid.
The style continues a trend of traditional approach towards telling stories with music, following the template of classical music. In this sense, Mana follows like-minded producers such as Arca and label mate Fatima Al Qadiri in building symphonic tone poems with highly textured electronic sounds. Track Symphony of Regulation explicitly states this ethos in its title. And indeed the sounds tend to mimic orchestral instruments: there are string and brass-like tones that are effective in generating an emotional pull from the music.
Seven Steps Behind is a complex, dense work, which requires your attention to get the most out it. Read: not really background music, but owing to its many layers can be listened to as such if you let it wash over you. Mana’s sense of melody is bold and expressive, and not without some risk taking (also the name of the opening track), occasionally pushing the sounds into some harsher territory.
Tracks such as Myopia For The Future and Instinction leave plenty of space to hear the melodies and light percussion unfold, and show off Mana’s attention to detail in the sounds, from highly polished and glossy to more rugose and pitted surfaces. There’s a subtle stretching of time as well, with tracks such as A Note On The Limits pushing and pulling the flow to disorientating and dramatic effect.
Voices are featured, such as on single Talking Choking, but when they appear they are invariably heavily treated so that you can only make out the odd word or phrase. Symphony of Regulation also makes use of a choral vocal to create an ethereal feel, and the delightful Solo sees a paper thin vocal bob and weave with a playful melody over some sparse beats.
Many tracks are lightly constructed with a sense of exotica about them, as if emanating from worlds unseen. However, other tracks explore more heady landscapes such as Leverage For Survival, No Body and the title track. There’s an intense kind of melancholy that seeps from some of the tracks, such as Leverage For Survival which sounds as though forces of good and evil are pitted against each other, with evil seeming to triumph on this occasion.
The title track appears last here, and at over nine minutes is certainly a statement piece. A solo brassy guttural skronk starkly grounds the scene to begin, eventually giving way to a warbling, melancholy line that floats above the darkness towards the heavens. Although simply constructed, it’s an affecting track, leaving you somewhat emotionally wrung out at its conclusion.
An album full of imagination, Seven Steps Behind presents a bold new electronic world for exploration. Not all the experiments work or are ear-pleasingly nice, but Mana is not trying for radio-friendly dance hits here either. For the musically intrepid, Seven Steps Behind offers a strange journey to Mana’s sculpture garden of finely-honed electronic sounds.