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The Director's Cut: No Mana - Secret Level

No Mana breaks down the creative process and meaning behind his new album 'Secret Level.'

Deadmau5’s mau5trap is having a great start to 2020. Their first signee ATTLAS put out an incredible album just two weeks ago and now they have tapped one of the most prominent members over the past several years, No Mana, to release his debut album. No Mana has fit into the label mold, combining gritty electro with warbling melodies and a flare for interesting songwriting that comes together with tracks that span from more downtempo, mellow melodic songs to big, heavy and gritty records. He has put all of that together into a new album titled Secret Level.

To get a little more information on the album, we decided to have No Mana break down the album to better explain the creative process behind it. There are quite a few collaborations, so he will get into how those came together. Prepare to have your mind blown with the meaning of some of these songs as we dive into an infinite simulation. Listen to Secret Level and read on for his explanation of the album. 

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"The way I designed and ordered this album was so that it can be listened by not just the album tracks in-order, but also by each track individually if you wish to listen to them in itself or have fulfillment in listening to just a slice of the album in various settings such as a playlist or a mix. In other words, I wanted each track to be independent and not reliant on other tracks of the album, but at the same time still retain value in listening to the album throughout.

I hope by me explaining this album will offer the listener an enjoyment of depth in the art, but will also leave the listener with flexibility in interpretation with their own imagination without being limited to what meaning I put into it.

1. Secret Level:

This track to me is like the initial feeling of excitement, joy and anticipation for adventure. It’s being a child and having an insane amount of interest in everything because everything you encounter is an encounter for the first time. I think having the theme of a maze or a video game element is just the face of the meaning of this introductory track to the album - it resembles the excitement of engaging in a challenge of a new thing. To me, at this point in my own life, it resonates with my new love for creating with pixel art and animation. The joy of finding a chamber full of treasure in a video game is kind of like how fun it is to explore this new form of art, especially when mixing it into something I was primarily into. Speaking of themes and video game elements, I do not think there’s another person I could have worked with on this collaborative track other than Chipzel. I’m grateful for her help and how her sound fulfills my affinity for quantized bits and nearest-neighboring art that is our track and the graphics associated with it. It was fun, and that’s how I want my introduction to be -- fun.

2. Strangers:

Throughout this adventure, you’ll find that there’s a certain kind of feeling that is paired with a multitude of things, events, people, and even this track; and the feeling may be associated with talking to someone you like for the first time, or feeling complete after you’ve gone to an outing or event with a bunch of good people. And after such an experience, you realize it’s fleeting, or temporary; you’re now feeling melancholic. When will you see that person again? Or go out and have an eventful night again? Or even just have that feeling in general? It’s kind of like going to EDC for a weekend, you go ham, and now you have this permanent afterglow (excuse the pun) from the excessive happiness over the past few days, starting from when you make the drive a few hundred miles to home. It’s kind of like meeting a person and you think “he/she’s the one, but when in the world am I going to see them again?”. That’s how the melody started on my end.

When Jantine came back with the vocals, I recognized that it had the same theme without me having to communicate what my melody was about to her. I loved the lyrics because they were so ethereal to me, and had this same feeling of regression or nostalgia of a past experience. It reminded me a lot of that anime Your Name. It’s not exact to the plot, but the feeling portrayed in that movie is really similar to this song - to me at least. By now you’ve seen me make teasers for “Strangers,” and it’s from that anime, but I would love to do a full blown one and call it an AMV and make it like it’s 2005 again.

3. Only Noise:

I first heard of Voicians on Twitter when someone sent me a tweet saying I should collaborate with him and that he was reminiscent of Rob Swire. I heard his stuff and I was pretty impressed - he really does know how to carry his voice. He had a demo that was titled “Only Noise.” I felt like it fit one of my ID’s quite well, so I put them together. This was one of those tracks that was more like a sonic experiment (as it’s rightfully titled, I guess). In the end, the plot (at least to me) sort of resembled this wall-of-sound issue, whether it takes place in the loudness mastering wars, a venue that doesn’t obey their sound limits, or just the sound of your own head that numbs the reality that you’re in (I think I’ll go with the latter).

4. Bed of Stars:

You’re laying on a bed made of tiny, glittering stars, and you have no idea what events have led up to you being in this situation. Trying to make sense of it is like trying to figure out the inception of a dream as you are in one, except you know you are awake, so you are convinced you may just be insane. This derives from a personal experience, I don’t think explaining it here will do its justice.

5. Distance:

This track was almost titled “Alone on the 5.” The 5 is an interstate freeway (yeah, yeah, I say THE 5 because there’s no other way to address a Californian freeway). When I was done with this one, the way it sounded reminded me a lot of being in my own head while I’m driving. The way the melody and sound design felt to me, almost gives a sense of minor agony that’s in the feeling of having to be apart from the people you want to be around, but also having the beauty and serenity that’s in being alone. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with being on tour and missing the people at home, although I could see it being about that as the track has dance characteristics that imply the story of constantly being in a club, concert or festival and away from home or daily life.

6. Bottle Service:

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Now that you’re at this point, you’re sucked into the black hole that is the club scene and, well, you blacking out. You’re the CEO of… who cares, you just make insane amounts of money and you’re here to spend it all for a flex, and bottle service which is actually just Henry continuously pouring black cherry White Claws down your mouth at the backstage tables of Space Yacht. It’s 4am, you’ve missed calls from your wife and you explain to her that the event was actually you hustling’ day and night while you drunkenly wonder why you have an extra few hundred miles on your valeted 911 Carerra.

Okay, exaggerated dramatization aside, I didn’t really make this track because I condone all that, it was because that aura of such a human being is a strange but amusing sight to see. Out of all the tracks on the album, I really appreciate this one as how I envision my electro house to be - a YouTube video with an “I <3 HOUSE” background, and, at the same time, played at some weird bottle service club in 2008. By no means I’m an EDM bro or anything - just an Asian kid who looks like he still belongs in computer science class. Like I said, I didn’t start this track because I’m here to pop bottles; 80% of it is playing around with drums and synths like how it usually is - wholesome and fun.

But I bet you the other 20% of the making of this track, I have been unconsciously inspired by the rich spirit of this man who came to a show I was playing a couple years ago. I was forewarned about how much money this guy had. From what I remember, I’ve been told he’s invested a ton of it in cryptocurrency and now has hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. A friend had shown me pictures of the copious amount of champagne bottles he had at a club, and lo and behold he shows up to this show I was playing and orders bottle service probably as many bottles as there were in that picture. Everyone in the venue got shots; everyone got champagne; the staff had to source outside the venue to get even more bottles for this guy; and I don’t even remember like half the day for not-so-great reasons. But yeah, I think he’s in jail now, but for sure banned from that venue. This song is basically about being ignorantly rich in a parodic way.

7. Phoenix Up:

I just love the sample I chose - “even angels tire of ecstasy”; like, can you imagine that you, a protagonist, whether an angel or whatever, have no choice but to fight in the life of whatever world you’re put in just because some selfish idiot made you take an elixir to bring you back after the fact death himself tried to choose the fate for you? A life in the virtual world that is never-ending is unimaginably tiring, even for an angel at the afters. 

Anyways, I used to play Final Fantasy X as a kid. My uncle gave it to me, and I’ve decided I’m destined to never finish that game. The first time I tried it, I was too young to understand the mechanics of leveling up so I would just flee every fight, which made it insanely hard down the road and virtually impossible to finish. The second time I tried it and thought I was doing alright, I just didn’t have time - possibly school and stuff. The third time I had tons of time, but right when I was about to kill Yunalesca my PS3 decided to just… die. Now that it’s on the Switch and that I’m on tour I guess I don’t have an excuse out of binging those Phoenix Downs again.

Now some of you may be asking why it’s called “Phoenix Up,” or what it is if there is such a thing. Honestly it’s just wordplay, but I can’t help but imagine throwing a Phoenix Up at a teammate and the exact opposite of a Phoenix Down happens, like just dying in a fetal position. Initially, as energetic as this track is to remind me of an elixir that gives you life, having mentioned the opposite thereof I realize it’s pretty cursed for what its title suggests - I just think it’s funny.

8. Special Move:

At this point you’ve noticed the album transition energy from being easy-going to a bit more hard-hitting - at least that’s how I see it. I realize I’ve said that I wanted each track to be independent from each other, however Phoenix Up and Special Move are the most play-together tracks out of the tracks of the album in terms of key and sound style. This was one of those demos that was inspired by some guys on the trancier side - Norin & Rad and Andrew Bayer to name a few. The title came from an inside joke amongst friends - it probably stemmed from making stupid dance moves. As silly as that sounds, you’d be surprised how much of my music is about the people I surround myself with and the times that are had with them. A big part of my Secret Level is the social experiences, the interactions with the different characters in the world.

9.Something About You:

Amongst those social experiences, friends and people, there’s always one you’ll meet that is most significant to you and that makes up most of your story - you know who you are.

10. Fragile Human:

Ed and I share an insanely similar music taste. There’s not that many people I can find that love electro house as much as I do, especially when we’re talking about a specific time period of it. The decade makes a huge difference and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know a guy that can see it to the same extent as I do. Even though electro house is our primary interest, we’ve taken a melodic-progressive approach to our collaboration, which fulfills one of our remote corners of our tastes.

As the demo was already titled “Fragile Human,” we’ve decided to add vocals that work with that title: “Don’t run away, or you’ll remain a fragile human.” At this point, the Secret Level may not just be an adventure, but also a series of lessons and themes. I’ve decided the album takes a slightly somber approach towards the end of this part in terms of melodic elements, not just because it feels right to have energy flow but just like life, there are ups and downs, and it’s full of happiness, struggles and learning. There’s no better adventure than the one you’re living in now.

11. VVVR:

This stands for Virtual, Virtual, Virtual Reality. You’ve experienced the Secret Level with its highs and lows, learning, dancing, getting drunk to it in the club, and whatnot, and as we head towards the end of the level, you’re having an existential crisis. Life could be a simulation. Life could be a simulation, in a simulation. The moment you die is the moment you take your Oculus off and head downstairs to your mom’s spaghetti, and when you die from that life, it happens all over again, and for eternity the meaning of life could be about taking your Oculus off and heading downstairs to your mom’s spaghetti.

Life might not even be a simulation the way we know it at all. You could die, and then become repeatedly reincarnated until you become God, because there wouldn’t be another way to fulfill the whole idea of the concept of the universe experiencing itself through human form, plant form, and so on, incrementally, but also at the same time. And after that, you may move onto a higher dimension to experience it in a different hierarchy of existence. It goes on, forever, until you reach the highest dimension into homologous existence - everything, then nothing. And since nothing is a paradox, the inception of everything begins once again, and happens over and over, forever, while we may never know what it all means or how to stop the cycle.

In other words, who gives a fuck?

I made this track because I wanted to finish strong, just like in any level, chapter, or life. It’s a celebration of treating the now in a positive way and not letting your fate have an effect on what you are currently doing. You’re given an album, and you’re listening to it, experiencing it in your own way, right now, without questioning it like you would question life as if you were having an existential crisis. It is fundamental enjoyment. Smash that repeat button as if nothing I said about reality being horrifically recursive meant anything to you about smashing that repeat button. The eleventh track ends, and you’re playing that first track again without even realizing it. This album is about a small part of an adventure, interpreted by my own direction. Thank you for listening.

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