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Manic Focus Primes Chicago's EDM Palette On 'Cerebral Eclipse'

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 29, 2014 4:00PM

Photo courtesy of 2AM PR

Electronic dance music's mainstream ascent has been so swift in the last half decade that it somewhat bypassed the development of critical vocabulary. Other than a few key terms ("dustup" and "trap" to name two), many strains of electronic beats are tossed under the all-encompassing EDM label—rendering artists like Pretty Lights and Calvin Harris different in sound but not in classification.

Chicago transplant by way of St. Paul, Minnesota, John McCarten (who performs as Manic Focus) is one such example of an artist who doesn't deserve a generic dance music tag but is difficult to describe otherwise. Even McCarten realizes he's not the poster child for mainstream EDM in America.

"I've got a lot of love for EDM and dance music," McCarten told Chicagoist, "but I've gone through more of the jam band scene to get to a lot of my fans. EDM crowds like you'd find at EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas] or Ultra [Music Festival in Miami] are a blast to play for but a lot of my stuff is pretty chill. They like to rage extra hard, so when I play for them I usually have more bangers. But when I play at a Summer Camp [in Chillicothe, Illinois] or Electric Forest [Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan] I can drop slightly chiller stuff and people will enjoy it."

His new album Cerebral Eclipse, out yesterday, is his best example yet of blending bass music rhythms, tight hip hop beats and noodle-y live instrumentation. It challenges opponents of dance music's polar ends—like, say, David Guetta or Skrillex—to pay closer attention to the songwriting talents many electronic producers like McCarten possess.


The title for Manic Focus's fourth release is simple, straightforward but also poetic. "I've performed more times this year than I have in the past two years and the concept of Cerebral Eclipse came from me just having a mental block," McCarten told Chicagoist in advanced of the new album. "Once you set a standard for yourself, I feel like a lot of people expect you to surpass it with what you put out next. That was a huge hurdle for me. The 'cerebral eclipse' was me instead of trying to think of it as a mental block, trying to find the beauty in the ride and the experience. I was trying to overcome it with a bunch of friends. That's why there's a lot of features [on this album]. I was trying to overcome mental frustrations and the struggle through positivity and the music."

McCarten is being modest when he mentions his "friends" and the album's "features." In Manic Focus's corner of the music market, features from Big Gigantic producer and saxophonist Dominic Lalli on the album's lead single "Bumpin' In The Voodoo" and fellow producer Griz on definite standout track "Life Goes On" are big looks.

Manic Focus's current tour with Lalli and his Big Gigantic partner Jeremy Salken as well as his ever evolving collaboration with Break Science, which the two parties have dubbed "Manic Science," are a world away from his first experiences in Chicago. McCarten laughed as he recalled his first set here in the city.

"The first show I ever did was at Beauty Bar and nobody was there. My brother told me he had a gig for me as soon as I [moved to Chicago]. I had just finished driving eight hours from St. Paul and went into Beauty Bar with all my stuff still in my car. I played for an hour in front of nobody except for my brother and the barkeepers."

He put in his dues though, adopting a Kanye West-like, "lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers" work ethic when it came to his music.

"I didn't launch the [Manic Focus brand] until the second North Coast [Music Festival in Chicago]. I was like, 'What is this amazing scene? I need to get into it.' I was already making rap beats but my equipment was really old so I just took all the money I had and invested it. After realizing this is what I wanted to do, I had to tell my friends I had to focus. For a full year I really kind of isolated myself to work towards my dream."

Now, not even four years since his move, he's being booked by the same festivals that helped inspire him in the first place. Setting a pace of one album per every year that McCarten exists as Manic Focus, he's moving at breakneck speeds through the industry. That said, Cerebral Eclipse proves that Manic Focus's best moves are likely still ahead of him.