Review: MGUN – Gentium (Don’t Be Afraid)

Of all the elements within Manuel Gonzales’ musical output over the last few years perhaps one of the most important has been that it rarely conforms to whatever romanticized notion of Detroit techno is currently in vogue. There are, of course, plenty of nods and touches resplendent of his native city – as a former member of Underground Resistance’s live band and a sometimes collaborator with Kyle Hall how could there not be – but the overwhelming sense has often been of a producer at his happiest and at his best when he gives free reign to his own unique sound, shaped as it is by an understanding that perhaps the greatest gift a musical heritage can give you – should give you – is the springboard to go beyond it.

It’s also interesting that Mgun’s best work has been furnished across a number of British labels and UK-based partnerships that fit him like a glove. The Trilogy Tapes and Berceuse Heroique come to mind, but his longest and most successful home has been with Ben Semtek’s Don’t Be Afraid where he has formed one of the most exciting takes on modern techno in recent years. It’s a sound that has a strong camaraderie with a profoundly British form of electronic experimentalism, but one that seldom forgets Detroit techno’s greatest lesson is that without soul at the heart of the music, the grooves go nowhere.

Gentium, his first album, represents Mgun’s reemergence after a near two-year period of radio silence. Although many of his sonic fingerprints are apparent, particularly in the directness that comes from his favoured production method of jamming on hardware, there is a greater breadth to the music, and a subtlety that hasn’t always been obvious previously. This isn’t to suggest that he has followed a lot of the techno of recent times in trading snap and flare for something deeper. Gentium certainly does have those moments but even when they come to the fore, such as on the sleepy-eyed opener Pok, they unfurl as touches of grace and warmth hanging in purposeful space, lengthening and stretching out into fragments of gilded melody which recall Drexciya’s lighter and more playful moments. Don’t Hurt Yourself, in comparison, doesn’t so much deepen as submerge the music in a tidal flood of echo and grit where the rare touches of light that penetrate the depth take on an alien quality.

Both of those tracks are good examples of Gentium’s defining mood, which is largely downbeat in nature but with enough optimism to keep it floating in the right place. There is, in fact, a similarity here to the vibes of Hall and Jay Daniel, particularly in Half Past 3’s scratchy moonlit funk or Bed and Breakfast’s tight groove. They work the housier end of the sound, but hang their sense of rough fun on loose experimentalist touches knowing well that any attempt to siphon off the energy which comes from that vital collision would weaken the magic with over familiar conventions. When Mgun lets himself go completely though, such as on the fantastic Veyra, things move up to another level entirely. Veyra is that rarest of things: a slice of freakish, odd angled funk that warps and redefines itself endlessly without ever failing to do the job. It’s both snaked hipped and utterly robotic, an absolute treasure of a tune which will be turning up in a hundred and one mixes over the nest few months.

Veyra’s lunatic abandon aside there is a balancing act on Gentium between the experimental and a more straight ahead approach and it doesn’t always come off. Past Due sounds a collection of loosely linked ideas without common ground, and with too much prominence given to the sullen bass at the expense of the shimmering but overly fragile melody up top. Nobs simply kicks against itself, never allowing anything else to intrude into it’s closed off world. These occasional miss hits can be forgiven though because the album remains, above all, a brilliantly honest one and the blemishes serve to accent how good the rest of it remains. That it is this good is a testament to a musical vision that rarely tips its hat to the transience of faddish scenes and trends, and instead fiercely guards its creator’s deeply individualistic talents. And when you consider how rare that is becoming in modern techno, you realise quite how special Gentium might turn out to be.

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