For someone who thrives on artistic collaboration, it’s interesting to see Toronto’s Ben Gunning releasing an album where he writes, plays, records, and mixes the whole thing. No Magic Hand is the long-awaited follow-up to Muldrew, his ambient improv collaboration with fellow Canadian Joseph Shabason, as well as Gunning’s own Nature, both released in 2019. While there are similarities between those records and Gunning’s latest project, No Magic Hand is a fascinating and deeply satisfying singular glimpse into Gunning’s musical mind.
This new album is a far cry from some of Gunning’s earlier works. As a teenager, he was a member of the Canadian indie guitar-based band Local Rabbits, and he later collaborated with Robin Dann on the slightly more conventional electronic dance project EX POM. Solo records like 2010’s Mal de Mer (a concept album told from the point of view of a cruise ship employee) explored the sophisticated corners of pop music. With No Magic Hand, experimental gestures are the order of the day, and artistically, the album succeeds mightily, thanks to Gunning’s use of a broad sonic palette and a keen sense of how to incorporate pop sensibilities into that space.
The warm, staccato keyboards that wash over the album’s opening track, “Nana”, are blended with stuttering drum programming and Gunning’s husky vocal samples, sounding like Elvis Costello if he was recording for Orange Milk Records. The spacey interplanetary vibe continues with “The Vapours”, which embraces funk, synthpop, and jazz in a way that would be unwieldy and unfocused in less capable hands.
But true to Gunning’s musical vision, conventional pop song structure is always at arm’s length. “Love Is Real” invokes traditional balladry with interesting, somewhat exotic musical choices like marimba and fingerpicked acoustic guitars. On the other end of the spectrum, the dreamlike “Fairweather” – included on No Magic Hand but also released as a standalone single last year – features warm, lightning-fast keyboard runs interspersed with random bursts of electronic percussion and ghost-like synthesized vocalizing that combine to create a sound that is mysterious but inviting.
Pop and electronic dance are complemented by welcome sounds of languid R&B, as in the relaxed, processed funk of “Power”. The slippery beats and blasts of bass and percussion in this standout track are weirdly (but nicely) matched with an engaging chorus and Gunning’s excellent lead vocal performance. It’s what you might imagine Prince might come up with if he discovered vaporwave. Those funky tendencies are given an exceptionally playful run on “Static and White Noise”, recalling Thomas Dolby‘s lovable, nerdy stabs at dance music.
Gunning is all too happy to take detours away from obvious musical choices, as in the impressionistic title track, which includes a jazzy, understated drum machine pulse chugging away while vocals, synths, and guitar take on a more free-form approach. This odd balance of styles within the same song is a rare treat for the average artist. Gunning’s songwriting and arranging chops are matched only by his uncanny ability to be completely unpredictable. On the closer, “Loose End”, machinery builds and builds and matches with a galloping, synthetic beat, eventually accompanied by soulful crooning, creating a perfectly paced, ultimately satisfying coda, capped off with a few chords of chunky, jazzy electric guitar. In a little more than 45 minutes, Gunning comes and goes, dropping rich sonic textures, lush hooks, and synthetic squalls all over a thoroughly engaging, utterly unclassifiable album.
If Canada could ever claim its version of Wunderkinder like Todd Rundgren, Ben Gunning could very well be the most qualified candidate. He’s produced lots of fantastic music over the years with various collaborators and band members. Still, as No Magic Hand proves, he can sometimes produce the most startling, winning results when left alone to put it together himself.