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Maara - Ultimate Reward (Naff Recordings, 2021)

The latest instalment in the ever impressive Naff discography comes from the finger tips of DJ and producer Maara, who on her debut record transfixes from the off with a sonic landscape constructed from pure euphoria and transcendentalism.

Building a brand, an identity through a label is very important, as it binds listeners to a feeling that continually resonates through the music it releases. It could be through consistency through genre and rhythm, it could be daring and bold via experimentalism, or choosing historical trends and styles as a reference point to make new and exciting music. That last point is an important one, as many contemporary labels have looked to the past as a source of inspiration to drive forward their audial rhetoric, to fill the gaps that are generated on the modern day dancefloor with sounds that never went out of fashion, merely confined to the annuals of history to be rediscovered by a new generation. However, how varying labels and individuals blend these established sounds with their own interpretations of the contemporary always brings up awe inspiring results, a notion of pairing and contrasting in equal measure that does much to further the dialogue when it comes to expressionism through sounds and scapes. We find ourselves with a rich and dense tapestry to pick from when it comes to labels who convey these kinds of feelings, music that is fundamentally engaging at its core along with displaying an inherent diversity in its melodics and mechanics, a conjuring of an impeccably dense landscape that is filled with points of interests and things to see. The broad horizons remain an important aspect, in that an anchor is present throughout which allows for the music to take a significant amount of time to fully explore, to groove through every nook and cranny, to boldly conjure up vivid scenarios that flourish before our eyes. Its the kinds of sounds that build bridges between a past from not so long ago and the near distant future, pushing forward the preconceived notions of the dance floor via music that really could plant you anywhere in the world and still soundtrack it perfectly. The sound of rushing water, the rhythms of fields and tree lines, the bustle of urbanity, the interactivity of crowds, the quiet sombre mornings, these become pictures in our minds when listening to electronica that is deep set and intricate, moving between the lines of percussive overloads to sombre, tender moments where the quiet is paired with melodics. Electronica has the power to both, and when labels find the right balance between softer and harder moments, its a godsend, with listeners able to revel in tunes that make them jump or reflect, to loose themselves both in a sea of melodic richness and with the pounding kicks. A spectrum emerges that is informed by the records that come forth, allowing us to expect familiar tropes but at the same time feel passionately enthused by the concept of something new, something fresh, a new perspective that carries our hearts and minds onwards in a positive direction. We get taken by the hand with imprints who engage with us on this level, as their ability to craft meaningful and purposeful soundscapes that blend vision with ambition means we never go wanting after a listening session, only eager to repeat and explore further into the depths of it all. Its music that inspires, its a sound that pushes the boundaries to the extreme, its something to believe in, and its something that we all need and require right now.

One label who really epitomise these ideals is the Canadian label Naff Recordings, who for some while now have been pushing some truly groundbreaking talents, along with contributing significantly to the country's vibrant soundscapes that have become so beloved the world over. Helmed by producers Priori and Ex-Terrestrial, Naff has truly imprinted its sound into the contemporary electronic music landscape, with a hefty discography that explores all manner of styles, ranging from piano house to techno, ambient to downtempo, IDM to electro, from which so many patterns and brilliance emerge but conceived and packaged within the label's core identity. Building upon much of the incredible work that emerged from the 90s, the label has conceived an audial character that is intrinsic and purposeful, where a four tracker could go anywhere and an LP demonstrates the true talents of those behind it, encouraged by the label's elasticity when it comes to conveying a sound or collection of sounds. Its this willingness to explore and navigate a complex web of styles that has drawn so many to Naff, with the music found within one that pushes a broad range of sonics that free the mind and allow for mental wonderings to occur of the highest order. Its a rare feat that you could spend time listening to their tracks in both a club and home setting, such is the complexities and world building on display that allows for either context to be as pleasurable as each other. Its a dedication to their vision which provides such an experience, a passion and belief in the music being pushed which provides the strongest possible foundations to exist which can be used as a launch pad for further success. Its music that expands to its fullest extent, fuelled by soaring pads and crunchy mid range electronics, and contracts when needed to provide the perfect blend between deep expanses and uplifting plateaus where the horizons stretch on for miles on end. From a impeccable discography, our selected highlights include the superb 'Pilgrims of the Rinde' LP from the modern day rave group Perishing Thirst, that really showcased the label's deep affinity for 90s sounds, with the record arriving in 2018; the all encompassing rhythms and melodies that abound from the superb 'TV Science' record, that was recorded by ANF and came out in 2019; the excellent 'On A Nimbus' record from label head Priori, that is as awe inspiring as the day it came out, which also landed in 2019; the equally deep and diverse 'Gamma Infolded' record from the other label head Ex-Terrestrial, which also landed in the same year; and finally, the traversing and continually exploring 'Mind Kiss' record from Ambien Baby, which came out last year. In all, Naff has been responsible for some really iconic pieces of contemporary dance music, which was forged from within a delectable sea of potential and vision which brought forth some revolutionary sounds fit for pushing onwards and upwards the concepts of dance music and electronica. Every release stands alone as its own form of creative endeavour, but as a package the discography contains an essence that threads and weaves itself between one another, continually evolving and growing through time and space to reach destinations that seem somewhere between the here and now, boldly meandering between far flung worlds and near distant environments. We're sure you've checked out their works before, but there's always room to grow within Naff's universe.

And now we arrive at the latest instalment in the series, 'Ultimate Reward', the debut record from DJ and producer Maara-Louisa Dunbar. On this four tracker, Maara captures the essence of the label perfectly, distilling the progressive tendencies that came before with calming moments of breezy tranquility that draw power from the chillout rooms of old, with the end results operating on so many tantalising levels. It feels like an amalgamation of all that has come through the Naff doors, a blend of the graceful with the powerful, the sombre and tender with the overtly energetic, and it sounds utterly wonderful. An identity all of its own but contributing significantly to the imprint's sound, Maara captures it all, and on that note, lets take a dive into this wonderful slice of heaven.....

Up first comes the title track, and we begin in suitably dubby territory. The liquidised notes give way to the fast paced drumming patterns, with vocal lines calling out through the haze in true label fashion, as the percussive structures become denser as time passes by, filling the gaps with hats as the densities move fluidly through the motions. Everything cuts out to give a quick glimpse back into the intro, an expanse that has contracted in anticipation of an explosion of energy, and that happens in truly remarkable fashion as the vocal sample leads the way on top of a hard as hell drum beat, one that swings from side to side of our minds as it pummels its way through the surrounding context. The blend of rhythms with the subtle melodic elements is one that takes the breath away with its force and purpose, taking the time to weave and dip with the flows, feeling its way through the soundscape that emerges from within that places us far above the landscape below and in some kind of trance like area above the stars. The track then winds down from there, content in its journey to move us via the utilisation of a very powerful rhythm indeed. Excellence personified. Up next comes 'Der She Goes', and this one starts off in similar territories. The drums arrive sooner on this one as cascades of liquid keys flow over the top, with a bass line calling out to us from underneath, all of which contributes to the forward momentum that brings the track into its full flow. The movement that occurs on top is expertly pulled off, as differing elements work together to provide a feeling of continual activity, where varying sequences call out to each other across the plains to leave us constantly listening, engaged to the max as we look to pick up on every single little detail. The dips in energy provide us with a real flow to get behind, one that keeps us second guessing on what might come next, as each phase passes us by with ever increasing urgency and meaning, providing an experience that frees the mind of rigidity and structure to instead focus on how layers ebb and flow. This track is conceived brilliantly, providing such an enriching experience that lasts long in the memory, keeping us on our toes as we search and navigate a soundscape that is a revelation to reside within. Solid gold.

Up next comes 'Splash On Mi', and this one begins in much softer territories. The synths lap over our toes as we look into the deep orange sky, soothed by the possibility of a new day to come, the clouds above conveying a mood of calm, with the rhythmic pulses that arrive picking us up as we ascend above and beyond into new worlds. The keys recede to give space to the ever densifying drum line, which includes all manner of intricate and delicate spaces and places for us to explore, with extra attention give to how they sweep up and down, moving across the pans with increasing urgency, but before long the patterns settle down in order to provide melodic notions to sweep across. Its an intoxicating blend of drums and subtle melodies, with vocal samples included for good measure to provide a narrative that speaks through the utterances and reverbs, an interactivity that remains passive but provides spaces and areas for us to call home, where we can imprint ourselves into the ongoing undulations and variations that grace us with each passing second. Its a wonderfully diverse experience, one that keeps up the momentum with dedication and inventiveness, and one that will not leave us for some time yet. To wrap things up on this brilliant record, we have 'Tranquil Lost Mommy', and there is still time for one final uplifting slice of gold to come our way. The beat is electro in nature, and as such allows for all the space and time in the world for Maara to delicately weave such gorgeous melodics into proceedings, and like with previous cuts its a subtle introduction, one that focuses on a small number of chords and sequences which are hyper amended to find that sweetest of spots. The resulting blend is a euphoric and deeply moving track, one that delves and dips within the rave and brings forth its essence, moving us like never before to the happy spots within our consciousness, whilst displaying an inherent level of dynamism that is evident across all the tracks on this record. Truly outstanding.

This might only be her debut, but we for one cannot wait to see how Maara's career as a producer will transpire. On this incredible offering, we are treated to some fine moments of experimentalism through sonics and tone, where the balance of keys and drums is channelled through a liquidiser that emphasises flow and movement, but also a dynamism that runs deep through to the core of it all. There are movements within tracks that take the breath away, all of which are expertly pulled off via transitions that dim down elements when needed before bringing it all back together in some style. Maara pays expert attention to each element, with every drum and key feeling so expertly conceived and placed within the experience, which in turn provides us with the most enriching of listens. Its a record that remains her own, but also as a brilliant contribution to the Naff family. A record that will move your mind, body and soul, and we cannot recommend it enough.

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