Favorite Track: "abandoned" Least Favorite Track: "new testament"
IDM is a difficult genre to classify. Arguments among the biggest names in the genre such as Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada permeate the attitude of the fans listening to it, as the most prevalent figures of the style question what the term IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) even means. Sometimes, it shows up in a lo-fi production style with a heavy use of synths and vocal sampling, usually creating a sound collage of influences that is incredibly interesting to listen to. Sometimes, it takes a more ambient form, with the most well-known album of the entire movement coming in the form of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, a record that is hyper-focused on creating a relaxed-yet-engaging musical atmosphere. There are plenty of offshoots of the IDM genre as well, showing up in a more aggressive and immediate release like Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy, or a more melancholic and modern release like the legendary Untrue by Burial.
More often than not, the IDM label is more an indication that the music you are going to hear is going to be mostly instrumental with a deep focus on at least one or more of its defining features. The truly special records of the genre, however, find a way to blend every element of IDM into a concoction that is truly special and entirely unique to the artist that makes it. In the 90s, we saw this with Boards of Canada’s ethereal masterpiece Music Has the Right to Children, the 2000s brought the aforementioned classic Untrue by Burial, and the 2010’s had the funky, fun, and entirely unique musical madhouse that is Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma. The 2020’s have barely begun, but plenty of budding young artists have been looking to prove themselves, and few are doing as well as db on their second studio album mantra.
mantra will not be a record for everyone. Listeners who expect and prefer their music to be immediate will be completely and utterly disappointed by this record. The soundscapes utilized here are inherently ambient, simple, and stripped back. The lone vocals on the record come in the form of a monologue at the end of the track “abandoned”, and often the intentions or emotional expressions on other tracks are unclear. However, anyone trying to argue that Mantra is an emotionless, low-effort record would be sorely mistaken. What this album lacks in immediacy, it makes up for in challenging the listener to explore what it makes them feel. This record never demands that you feel a certain way, it instead asks you what you would like to feel, how the intricate and thoughtful instrumentals pull emotions from you. If a typical album is the paint on a wall, mantra is the wall, asking you to be the painter.
The record begins with the somber “tennessee”, a great intro track that staves off any listeners who may not be receptive to the slow burn it provides. A bright synth intro starts the record off, as if the sun is going down before the listener endures the dark night that permeates the rest of the album. Clanky drums and dark, brooding synth chords drone on for multiple minutes, slowly leading into the more intense second track “funeral”. “funeral” is slightly less of a slow burn, with multiple changes in the structure keeping the listener engaged. Whether it is the awe-striking string swells on the front end of the track or the loud and harrowing ascending synth lead towards the middle, the song does its best to never lose the attention of the listener. Many different interpretations of the instrumental could be made, but it often feels like fighting an uphill battle, finding sparks of beauty in the difficult times of life and remaining resilient despite the hardships that come.
The second half of the record is much more extensive than the first, kicking off the halfway mark with the nearly twelve minute centerpiece that is “new testament”. The song, despite being the longest on the record, may be the least engaging among the tracklist. While the intro and outro to the track are unique and well produced, the middle of it is relatively repetitive without ever offering new ideas. Simple manipulated vocals and sleepy drums run throughout, following a basic chord progression and offer little variation on the original idea. The song is still quite well produced and works well within the context of the album, but could have been significantly shorter and still served the same purpose. However, the second to last song “abandoned” may be the best on the record. It is one of the few songs on the album that gives you emotional context, with a conversation outro between db and one of their friends, discussing how they have felt abandoned in their life, and how they have dealt with it. It is quite sad, but one of the people offers a positive outlook that reflects the somewhat positive sounding instrumental on the track. The drums are crisp, the synth chords are pretty, and the song is well-arranged with a strong finish.
In many ways, mantra is well represented by its closing title track. The song closes out the album with strong, blaring synth chords, occasionally giving way to slight and sleek instrumental passages that contrast each other beautifully. The drums are quick and manic, but the simplicity of the music gives the listener a sense of serenity as well. Some moments are pronounced and immediate, some are reserved and challenging. However, the impact of the song, and the record for that matter, is nothing without this contradiction. For the analytic listener, mantra might feel like a life story. The highs of life are nothing without the lows, and if you indulge this idea and embrace the abstract, mantra will easily be one of the most cathartic listening experiences that you will find for a long while.