Album of the Month November – Mano Le Tough: At the Moment

Mano Le Tough, Irish-born Niall Mannion’s career within Dance music has been one that all young music fans dream of. Initially stepping into the realm of dance music after toying with indie music in his teens he was quickly discovered (within minutes) of posting his first tracks on myspace by indie disco stalwart Tensnake in 2007. Soon after he moved to Berlin and quickly built a musical and DJ led following that most would dream of. Combing through his back catalogue, though at times limited, quality his always prevailed and so has his reputation.  This from Pampa Records sums up their artist to a tee: living alongside sought after personal singles, two full length albums, and remixes for, among others, The Pet Shop Boys, Roisin Murphy, Caribou and Erol Alkan, Mano became one of Europe’s most in-demand DJs, with headline performances across the continent’s dancefloors and the world’s biggest music festivals. Since early 2020, however, he’s been at home, attempting to channel inspiration from eighteen months without live music, amid the anxiety of a global pandemic’.

Any self proclaimed forward thinking dance music wanker like myself will point out that Mano Le Tough is one of the most consistent producers when creating adventurous dance records. In short the hipster dance geeks think he’s pretty special. His 2014 Boiler Room set is one of my most listened to DJ mixes. He has a slew of others that I regularly revisit. He’s a DJ that anyone serious about dance music should see at least once in their life, though this should not be a precursor to this album as this album takes you on  journey that at times would create dance floor moments but is more moulded to more laid back situations with a rear view on the dancefloor.

Last year we discussed on the podcast about music that was being made in lockdown and what the music would sound like. Like last months’ album, we’re starting to see the fruits ripened from 18 months of isolation. Largely hashed out in early 2020 from demos and new ideas you get the feel that this is an album of calmness away from the constant travel and DJing in the worlds best clubs every weekend. Mannion has mentioned in a couple interviews that not having his foot in a club every weekend let him to push himself beyond the traditional 4/4 structure that the majority of his previous releases always came back to. One interesting point is that Mannion is often overlooked for both his vocals and indie tinged tracks within dance music, which both shine throughout this album. 

We talk a lot about album order and the sequencing of tracks. After the masterclass of Billie Eillish, this too isn’t far away from perfection, though this is more like a perfectly arranged mixtape and less an overall piece of work. The length is hefty, 50 minutes and 12 minutes long. Although I can hear brother Joseph knocking his head on his kitchen table in Chorley at the length, I firmly believe that this won’t be an issue for him as the flow of this album is seamless. For Joey, the deep guitar lead dance feels will undoubtedly sit perfectly in his wheel house.

‘Aye Aye Mi Mi’ may be one of my tracks of the year and I suspect it’s got something in it for us all. I imagine dropping this in a back room somewhere with all four of us in attendance. I can imagine David doing a funny dance to it, Joey giving me his ‘what is this’ bass face, and Guy popping up his head whilst chewing the ear off of someone to swiftly lift his fist in approval. It’s an all-rounder that sits well in most places at most times.

From the psychedelic trip hop of ‘Moment to Change’ to the optimistic dreaminess of ‘Fado Fado’ and ‘Short Cuts’ and deep tinged dance bangers like ‘Pompeii’ and ‘So Many So Silent’ there’s more than enough to peak any music fans interest and keep them interested throughout the 50 minutes. Trying to pinpoint what this album is will be something that I think all of us will struggle to pigeonhole within a genre.

Although there have been similar albums within the realm of this album released recently, most notably new efforts by the Joy Orbison and Darkside, this album has connected with me the most. Perhaps the well woven slowdown sounds have moulded perfectly with the autumnal / early winter feels that I’m adapting to. That combined with the feeling that the likes of Caribou, LCD Soundsystem and Four Tet are all cut from the same cloth makes this album irresistible.

When explaining this album, it’s hard to pinpoint. Is it dance, is it indie, is it ambient, is there a point in categorising it? Whilst writing this I’m trying to get my head around why I love this album so much? ‘No Road Without a Turn’ perhaps sums it up best for me. It’s unexpected, full of emotion, it constantly evolves throughout. Both the song and the album, is something that everyone should have in their lives.

6 thoughts on “Album of the Month November – Mano Le Tough: At the Moment

  1. I’m so glad you chose this mate. I’ve been a fan of Mano’s since the 00s, and he’s such an interesting producer. With that background of guitars as well he’s got more to his locker than just a nice DAW and an imagination.

    This is just another development in a high quality production career, and while so many things he does feels like the same environs of artists we love: Caribou looms large here, he’s definitely his own man.

    I’m enjoying living with this album, as there’s a lot going on, and I will post some proper thoughts soon.

  2. First things first. This is a classy album, and it’s a ‘proper’ album too. I think we all know how hard it can be for electronic musicians to make records that really hang together properly – it’s why we still talk about the same handful of classic electronic albums, because so few achieve it. Dance music is often successful when the artist really ploughs a particular furrow musically – that can make for stand-out club tracks, but when you try and repeat the magic for 11 more, suddenly that same furrow can seem limited and repetitive.

    This has got music breadth and ambition, and it’s made with incredible care. I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. The only question for me is – does it really take off? Or is it slightly burdened with being over-thought out?

    I was aware of Mano Le Tough, but I realise now that I don’t think I’d really listened to his music before – which is always fun, actually, when coming to a new record, because I really didn’t know what my expectations were. On a first spin, I was like – oh, this wasn’t what I was expecting at all. A beguiling mix of all our fave influences – LCD, Caribou (BIG time!), Floating Points, Jon Hopkins. I was immediately taken with it. It was only after a few listens that I began to wonder if it was going to grow into something else – because it seemed to get stuck in terms of where I was at with it.

    It was then that I started to see a few holes in what I wanted to experience. Songs seemed to build on great grooves, but then not quite go anywhere (e.g. Moment to Change). Songs that started like they were going to be the BEST pop song ever, then there was no real vocal lead and you feel like you’re listening to a backing track. And yes, his voice is a little weak. It reminds me of early Bernie Sumner, just when New Order first grew out of the ashes of Joy Division – uncertain and a bit reedy. In contrast to the way Dan Snaith puts his high, melodic voice right in the centre of Caribou tracks, multi-tracked to heaven, it feels a bit underwhelming.

    Perhaps the C comparison is the hardest one to make with this record – because we all love Caribou (and some of us even got to see him last week!) and we know that what he does is such a rare alchemy to pull off. Is that unfair to make that comparison? I don’t know. Niall Mannon is clearly a guy who takes his music seriously, and it really shows. This article was really interesting in his process – https://www.musicradar.com/news/mano-le-tough-synths-album – but it also does make it clear that he dweebs out on synth sounds and his songs are very careful constructions. I wonder if they need to loosen up, go off in a strange direction, surprise us. Because once you’ve listened to this a few times, the surprises aren’t really there.

    So yeah, I’m enjoying it. I’ll probably keep sticking it on for a a good while. It’s a good party album. And it works as a record. It just doesn’t send me off into orbit. You can’t have it all…

    1. I loved that interview, even if it got very geeky in the end. But there’s such warmth in the sound, and his production is so good. Loose like Dan, but also really precise if that makes sense. You forget how big he is now as well, a real headliner.

  3. Right, I’ve had a much longer run of this to the point where it’s a bit of a constant in my life, and that’s really a nice thing to have. And I’m so glad Nolan picked it, because it’s reminded me what a great producer of subtle, rich, interesting house music Mano Le Tough is. And from knowing his first two albums and EPs, this feels like quite a step forward from a revolving, four-four palette which found offshoots in some curiously enjoyable directions, to a much more intriguing endeavour.

    Disclosure: I did hang out a bit with Niall back in the mid-late 2000s, when he was part of a crew of Dublin DJs and promoters I knew, and even DJed with him at a festival in Croatia in 2009 (https://ra.co/events/105292). He was an lovely guy, and I discovered his music in the early 00s because of that connection, when he’d moved to Berlin. But this isn’t really much more than a point to note there’s no bias here given the time that’s passed, only that it’s my gateway into discovering his music, something more than ‘I heard his track out once’.

    But really everyone needs a bit of Mano in their lives, because he’s a really excellent producer and DJ, and it’s not hard to see why his career’s been one long road trip since his debut album – Changing Days, on Munich’s Permanent Vacation – came out in 2013. His stock in trade is a lush, warm, enveloping house template, with a touch of melancholy (of which his detractors may call ‘sad house’) which lends a certain tension and wistfulness. If, like me, you love Dixon, Ame Frank, Kompakt or Mobilee or Innervisions’ stables, it’s not hard to see why that music would connect with you. This album landing from @nolankane706 made me realise just how much I should be listening to Mano’s stuff more than I do.

    So, is this just another beautifully-produced, dancefloor-tinged album of modern house? Well, no. Because nor were its predecessors either. For a guy whose influences were quoted as Steve Reich, Arthur Russell, Radiohead and Caribou (more of the C-word later) it’s not hard to see that ambition existed wider than just a deep house template. And while his music was very much in my four-four sweet spot, I don’t think it’s unfair to say I love so much of Mano’s music as a sort of soft, sonic template. There’s always something subtle, interesting and inventive happening but it isn’t always the case that tracks stay in the memory as much as an overall aesthetic does, hence really enjoying his albums but not always finding out single tracks that stuck. But with At The Moment, there’s some really memorable music and some of my favourite tracks of his and of the last few months, and with Ay Ay Mi Mi, ironically the most ‘housey’ record on the album, one of my favourite tracks of the year.

    We’ve talked about ‘lockdown albums’ since our lively ‘chat’ about Macca’s album in December 2020, and it’s certainly the case that this falls into that oeuvre, in fact Mannion has admitted as much. In his Zurich home, he finally made good on the self-made promise of making a new album, albeit one that was delayed by his relentless touring schedule. While a couple of tracks survive (and I’d love to know which), he took the opportunity of time on his hands – blended with the anxiety of a career on hold with a young family to provide for – to flesh out some more expansive ideas, many of them leaning more heavily on his indie/guitar background. And I can only say how glad I am for this, because At The Moment is a superb musical concoction.

    There’s an atmosphere there from the very start, from Man Of Arran’s echoing, spoken word sample over its dreamy, wandering synths, almost akin to an accordion, with ruffling, sonic whirrs, this both feels like a track you can pin on Mano but there’s something more loose to it, where so much of his output was often more tied up to the dancefloor, this feels like a welcome untethering. In fact, right through the dozen tracks, while there are obvious dancefloor moments – none more so than standout Ay Ay Mi Mi, Pompeii, and the ravey closer Together – so much of its 50 minutes is a much more circuitous route through guitar-led music that slides seamlessly from 90s indie jangle, to dubby Weatherall, strummed pop and back across to the DJ booth. And many of these moments are led by guitars, something I feel is a much more individual direction than many of either his peers or inspirations.

    This is where the album stands out from its contemporaries and moves from a solid, polished effort to something altogether more rewarding and notable. Snow On Bamboo establishes this early on, its half-nonsense lyrics and plucked guitar melodies and bass playing with strange percussive layers, and tuned percussion, leaving you not entirely sure what is it, but that it’s something *good*. Even Ay Ay Mi Mi, one of the tracks of the year for me, is a very ‘Frankfurt’ pop-dance record that you could see working in so many sets, and which still has a fuzzy guitar at its core. Very much similar is Fado Fado, with its strums and eastern chords, a sort of electronic pop that feels both uplifting and sparse, but these are separated by Moment To Change, which has an almost Primals on valium feel (without Bobby Gillespie, so already better), a spaced-out track that could be from 1996 as easily as from today. I’m aware here that many will find some faults with Mano’s vocals, but these aren’t really ‘song’s in that respect, with vocals just another part of the overall sonic palette, and I’m sure Mannion wouldn’t claim to be a true songwriter on these tracks, and as such these shouldn’t be fully judged on that basis. The vocals go in interesting directions, swathed under effects, back in the mix often, and just another instrument. He’s not Caribou and he’s not trying to be, even though Fado Fado gets very close to that majesty.

    There are reminders of other favourites, and none of them are as copycats. Pompeii’s brilliance could be a Shit Robot track in all the most complimentary ways, and No Road Without A Turn and New Cycles, with their echoed, dubby stylings, could be off a pair of Weatherall side projects, joyfully embracing the weirdness. And many of the tracks are short enough not to overstay their welcome too, so the fifty minutes time flies by. Short Cuts is a prime example of this, barely two and a half minutes, but a positive, glowing lead into the closing pumper Together, which gets dangerously close to trance from techno’s obsidian lands, but chimes with its sentiment of getting back to communal dancing, and feeling that euphoria that we all so love.

    It is not a perfect album, and you could argue – if being especially harsh – that some of the songs could have worked better in the hands of someone either wanting to or feeling more of a lyrical emphasis. Perhaps there’s a slight loss of momentum from No Road… to Together, but it would be pretty unfair to pick these holes when it’s such an enjoyable listen and a significant forward step for a producer that many already love. In the end, all I want from dance music that isn’t simply aimed at a basement, is some humanity, feeling, character, and warmth and this has it in spades in a way so many other artists we love does. Perhaps it’s all that vintage gear, but actually perhaps it’s just because Mano Le Tough is a really great producer.

  4. Wow. Tough job following Nolan’s great initial post and David and Guy’s responses. Now I remember why I always get my write ups in early.

    Contrary to everyone else’s experience … Nolan selecting this album as AOTM was my first introduction to Mr. Le Tough. Never heard of him, never heard him. I have also never hung out with him and have definitely never played any Croatian DJ-sets with him. So for me, this was a fresh musical experience with very little in terms of expectation. A nice, clean slate.

    My hopes for any DJ/Producer artist-album is please, please, please resist the temptation to bring in a bunch of guest vocalists singing second rate melodies with third rate lyrics. So my initial concern was soon alleviated by the lack of guests. As said before the beauty of the lockdown album seems to be minimalism where collaboration is concerned, for some this has worked for others … less so? For me, this album benefits from the singular musical mind whilst benefiting from that mind wandering all of the shop and taking numerous flights of fancy.

    There is SO much that I hear in this album: BIG lumps of dubby-trippy-reverb-drlpping-Nicholas-Jaarisms; Krauty-Stadium-worthy-James-Murphy-Isms; Caribesque-Dan-Snaithy-Daphnisms, with significant chunks of Schlomo, Mathew Dear, Mount Kimbie and the poppier sensibilities of the guitar drive tracks from Santigold’s debut.

    We have talked a number of times about ‘Human Electronica’ and this 100% falls into that camp. At first I thought the lyrical content was a weakness but over time I have re-framed the vocals and lyrics as a humanising, texturising feature of the album. As Guy mentioned, these aren’t ‘songs’ and perhaps the lyrics / vocals shouldn’t be judged by the expectations of a ‘pop track’. However, even in the less vocally driven tracks there is a very human touch and feel. It is warm and welcoming, it has breath and feel that electronic music frequently lacks.

    Guitars. Guitars. Guitars.

    How many ways can a ‘dance’ producer use guitars one one album? The answer appears to be 1,000s! I love it. The use of guitars in electronic can feel token. A nod to something that the producer felt like they needed to nod too. However, on this album Mano finds different characters and voices each time he uses that same instrument. I genuinely love the way that he does this. It makes me listen and lean-in to the album so much more. It’s not just guitars but bass-guitars (are they live or synth on tracks like Fado Fado?).

    I find the album so easy to listen to. So accessible. So appropriate for so many different moods and moments in life. I’ve been smashing the shit out of it. And when I am listening to it I love every note of it.

    But there is a but. It feels ‘incomplete’ in some way. And I am talking fractions here. Like a circles of 359 degrees. The missing bit is minute but there is something, tiny, invisibly small that is missing for me. One of the first things I wrote in my note book was ‘it sounds like a mix’. The last thing I wrote was ‘sketchbook’. Perhaps it is that this albums feels so much like a collection of ideas, really great ideas, that the ‘thread’ that flows through a ‘perfect album’ isn’t quite there.

    And that’s ok.

    I still love it.

    1. Lovely stuff brother Joey. This is a great write up and gets so many of the feels I have on this as well. I love that you get the guitars part too. There’s at least 4 on there, including bass. I love how it sounds and for me is a big way this marks things out from other albums even where other electronic stuff sounds similar (hi, Innervisions).

      I get what you say about incompleteness. I don’t necessarily agree but there’s times where this washes over me but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I wonder if without ‘songs’ in the same way others we’ve listed, it doesn’t quite connect on the same wavelength. But my it’s GOOD.

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