Release Date: Oct 22, 2013
Record label: Ninja Tune
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Club/Dance
Travis Stewart, the man behind the Machinedrum moniker, was born in North Carolina – not somewhere that immediately springs to mind as being a stronghold of electronic music. Hundreds of miles from the eras contemporary strongholds of New York or London, Stewart was forced to ?nd his feet alone. Now, 12 years on from the ?rst Machinedrum release, and having established himself as one of the genres most original, exciting, and urgently relevant artists to date, it seems fair to say that he found his own way pretty well in the end.
Room(s) was one of the breakthrough success stories of 2011. It revealed Machinedrum, real name Travis Stewart, as one of the best producers of R&B-laced electronica to emerge in the last four or five years. It received a rare 5/5 on RA, and finished number two in our Albums Of The Year poll. By then Stewart had already been recording heat-dizzy IDM and instrumental hip-hop for about a decade.
North Carolina-bred, Berlin-based electronic artist Machinedrum (aka Travis Stewart) is well known for his collaborations with people like Azealia Banks, Jesse Boykins III, Jimmy Edgar (JETS) and Praveen Sharma (Sepalcure). On Vapor City, Stewart shifts the focus back to his own idiosyncratic vision, drawing unexpected connections between mid-90s soulful drum 'n' bass, classic IDM, deep house, Chicago footwork and contemporary hip-hop. These styles have always been in the background, but there's an atmosphere pervading the album that helps bring the disparate influences together: where he once left stark empty space, he now fills it with an evocative glowing haze of filtered crackles and hisses.
If there's one turn of phrase guaranteed to set alarm bells ringing, it is the presence of the word ‘concept’ before ‘album’. Preconceived narratives can not only weigh an album down, removing the ability of the listener to interpret and take ownership, but also place the record within a context in which it must constantly justify itself. It is lucky, then, that Travis Stewart’s second release under his Machinedrum moniker avoids most of usual pitfalls.
Machinedrum existed long before Room(s): dig back a bit and you'll find a lot of dizzying glitch-hop and IDM moves on releases like 2001's Now You Know and 2002's Urban Biology that still reverberate through his more contemporary work. That Travis Stewart has since moved from Four Tet-shadowed downtempo abstraction to triple-digit BPMs and retro junglist breaks doesn't change things too much, either. Always handy with muted, distorted droning chords and shredded flakes of melody, Machinedrum's breakthrough as an in-demand name in bass music is a logical destination in the long run; all that there was left to wait for was a context.
As one half of Sepalcure (along with Praveen Sharma), Travis Stewart helped craft one of the final authentic dubstep albums before the genre was co-opted by ham-fisters like Bassnectar and Skrillex. Therefore it was hardly a shock that, under his Machinedrum moniker, Stewart deliberately moved past the textural avenues of early UK garage and two-step on last year's SXLND EP. However, the surprise this time is that the style-hopping, genre-manipulating trailblazer has retraced his steps on Vapor City.
Berlin-based American electronic bod Travis Stewart caused an agreeable kerfuffle with his ‘Room(s)’ album two years ago, when his embracing of Chicago footwork was deemed an individual, if inauthentic spin on the style. Its successor retains a zeal for fiddly, intricate beats, but recalibrates them: at times, the airy vibe sails close to late-’90s drum’n’bass (‘Gunshotta’, ‘Eyesdontlie’). An overly soft mid-section (‘Center Your Love’, ‘Vizion’) reveals that chillout-esque pleasantness isn’t Stewart’s forte, but that’s not to say this album’s only good when the whipcrack snare madness takes hold.
As the name suggests, much of Vapor City, the second album from EDM whiz Travis Stewart's Machinedrum project, is bathed in aural fog. But where 2011's Room(s) messed with hyper, drum-machined-driven Chicago footwork, here the rhythms veer toward rolling drum and bass breaks, and the mood is a lot more relaxed. Drums underpin samples that loop and build and vary with purpose — see "Baby It's U," which Stewart distorts and smears into ever-more-lovelorn shapes.
Machinedrum is one of the many recording aliases of North Carolina-born, Berlin-resident beat obsessive Travis Stewart, a prodigious 31-year-old producer whose recent work has been characterised by a splicing of 90s jungle and contemporary juke, or Chicago house. Here, it makes for tracks that, more often than not, are the kind to dutifully admire and find interesting, rather than lose yourself to on a dancefloor – much of this record sags with chill-out longueurs. But, when those two qualities do come together, as on the penultimate Eyesdontlie, it's formidably tight and focused and it makes for dance music to please the brain as well as the body.
It’s kind of odd that Machinedrum would title his latest album Vapor City in 2013, the same year that the squirmy internet phenomenon that is vaporwave was nominated for an MTV O Award (alas, it was beat out by its flashier, Rihanna-approved cousin “seapunk” [which is, for the record, an even more indefinable genre than vaporwave, which has actually inspired a pretty considerable body of theoretical fodder at TMT and elsewhere]). It’s odd because Machinedrum is a sonic perfectionist. He’s the kind of global bass-savvy producer who jumps from subgenre to subgenre, local scene to local scene in the span of songs and makes it sound polished, which is precisely the opposite gesture of vaporwave, whose core tenant is to start with the most homogenous source material possible and then warp it, through a series of contextual jokes, inversions, and fuckarounds into a sound that is, at its best, a wry devil’s advocate and at its worst a .
The Prefuse 73-style IDM-hip-hop of Machinedrum’s early noughties output offers few hints as to the path his career would take. Even now, Travis Stewart may seem an unlikely candidate for the status of dancefloor-hip paragon. His transformation can more or less be attributed to a single LP: 2011’s Room(s). Newly inspired by Chicago footwork, Stewart’s Planet Mu debut blended the style with the giddy uprush of jungle – a lifelong love – and gave it a slick, hi-def sheen.