Roots music, like most generic labels, is too broad a term to really convey anything useful to the listener. It covers all sorts of world, folk and traditional sounds, sounds that seem to lie at the beating heart of one culture or another and also seems to imply a nostalgic backward glance to a sound that is fairly well established, that is instantly identifiable, easy to pin down and even point to on a map. But if ManaLion is to be found anywhere in this broad musical scatter gun of ideas, it is found in a rare and interesting corner that is marked progressive, forward-thinking perhaps even futuristic.
ManaLion, as the imagery of their chimeric title suggests (Mana, a supernatural, essence, Lion, a symbol long associated with African derived music) are rooted in reggae, soul, afro-beat and r&b but as Nothing II Lose neatly shows, this is anything but another wander through established sounds. Instead it is the product of a band who care little for generic demarcations, who wander freely from one to another, mixing and matching cool vibes and slinky grooves as the mood takes them. Less interested in what has gone before them and more concerned with where various musical worlds gently collide and what they can build to ensure an exciting musical future.
Floating 2’s is a roots-rock groover, smooth rhythms anchored down with gritty guitar work, Move on You is chiming soulful brilliance, Hanvey HotLap mixes infectious hip-hop dance moves with futuristic and minimalistic interludes and if the world was a more reasoned place Video Games would have no problem camping out at the top of the charts for a few weeks. They also know how to write heart-tugging ballads, Long Way Home being a timeless and brilliantly soulful song that makes you think of past soul icons as readily as current pop princes.
I have to say that Nothing II Lose is the most unexpected and wonderful record (yes, I still call them records, what of it?) to land in the review pile so far this year. Most music that falls into such generic realms, even the really good stuff, is very traceable. By that I mean that you can hear the influences far too easily, trace a sonic family tree of references and sounds all too readily. ManaLion easily stand out from the pack because whilst it is easy to point at the generic building blocks that they use, they blend these together so deftly that you struggle to see the join.
Many artists try to appeal to an audience either by sticking too strictly to the established templates or by trying to blend new sounds together. The result is either predictable or chaotic. What ManaLion do is walk a fine line between these two approaches, they take familiar sounds and put them together in new and exciting ways. It all seems so obvious!