Review Summary: All you can do is dance.
The experience after which producer No Mana is named entails a stressful limiting of options, a player’s skills in battle and chances of survival both severely curtailed. Appropriately, the best music Southern Californian Jordan Orcaz has released under the alias feels similarly claustrophobic. Orcaz employs a wide range of chiptune sounds in his compositions, but he tends to emphasize the harshest and most raggedly percussive versions of these sounds, creating portentous loops and repeating them again and again while the rest of the piece grows around them like choking vines. In general, the resulting smother is well-worn and time-tested; much of the music released recently on deadmau5’s label mau5trap, to which No Mana is signed, creates this sort of paranoia by melding comfortable EDM tropes and big-room techno’s ruthless efficacy into a slurry of frantic melodies over jagged kicks. In adding boxy, blunt snippets of 16-bit, though, No Mana strips mau5trap’s standard fare down even further. The sounds are simpler and more primitive, meaning there’s even less room to explore than usual: the listener finds themself pinned under the crushing weight of a blocky synth lead.
Blessedly, No Mana doesn’t confine Secret Level
exclusively to this harrowing aesthetic; no matter how excellent, a single style like that tends to work better when it’s approached by many different producers over the course of a tightly-packed mix than a single artist creating an unmixed album. That said, the more wistful and wide-open moments here, while excellent in their own rights, serve mostly to emphasize the punishing force of the more driving tracks. Orcaz has mentioned in interviews that the album’s songs should stand on its own for shuffled listening, but the sequencing is nevertheless excellent: the plaintive “Bed of Stars,” for example, gives way to stand-out “Distance” like a quiet village swept up in a sudden tornado, and the moody electro house of lead single “Strangers” does an excellent job of lulling the unwary listener into just the right state to be thrown violently by the tectonic shift of “Only Noise.”
Best about Secret Level
is its impressive consistency. Its highs don’t quite reach the transcendence of Orcaz’s best tracks, particularly his neoned-out remix of Kiiara’s “Bipolar,” the platonic ideal of a John Wick club scene’s soundtrack; that said, there are plenty of those highs, and nary a low to be found. The middle stretch of the album in particular feels pulled directly from a prime-time club set, sardined bodies almost audible behind its sparer moments. It’s a perfect example of maximalist chiptune-influenced electro house many years after both chiptune and electro house have left their primes: only barely restrained enough to keep from cloying, but as infectiously and charismatically repetitive as it can be under that limit.
No Mana makes claustrophobic music, and that’s sort of the point: the clubs and festivals to which he peddles his wares should
feel nearly immobile, bodies packed so deep that dancing becomes less an expression of self than that of a unified crowd moving as one. Much like the titular experience, options are indeed limited at a rave: you move with those around you, or you’re lost in the crowd. Secret Level
provides ample material for that movement, plenty of tasteful peak-hour stompers for going bananas and enough pretty recovery space to rest and be awed before the next one goes positively in. Functional in the best sense of the word, Secret Level
cements No Mana’s taste for chiptune as an essential tenet of his appeal; his paranoia should provide euphoria for many sets to come.