Machinedrum: Vapor City
Similar Artists: Traxman, Prefuse 73, TNGHT, Sepalcure
Genre: Bass, Jungle, Footwork, Juke
Label: Ninja Tune
It’s hard for me to believe this is nearly my 70th review this year, and it is only now that I am reviewing a footwork album. If you’ve been living in a hole, the mostly Chicagoan based genre has been populating dance music for the last few years, and its presence has been particularly inescapable in IDM circles. This year alone has seen standout releases from Traxman, RP Boo, and DJ Rashad; all of which hold a distinguishable arc within the genre. One of the leading producers however (despite being based out of everywhere but Chicago) is Machinedrum, who broke out into the scene with 2011’s Room(s). At that point, Machinedrum (AKA Travis Stewart) had already been working as a largely unrecognized electronic producer for nearly a decade, but this release saw him raising his bpms while simultaneously harnessing the ghostly, emotive vocal samples of Burial; in doing so, he brought himself into the spotlight as well as bringing footwork into a more mainstream appreciated corner.
After a few EPs and collaborations (Sepalcure, most notably) , Travis Stewart is back with a true sequel to his breakthrough. This new album continues his fascination with jungle, juke, idm, bass and footwork. Titled Vapor City, it’s a concept album where each track is intended to represent a different section of a sprawling urban landscape. For the most part, this design decision works — even if it does feel a tad bit tacked on. Tracks like “Gunshotta” and “Overcome” feel like they are meant to resemble a tough as nails lower class district, while “Infinite Us” and “Baby It’s You” are more highbrow and upper class oriented. Still, the album as a whole is the complete opposite of grimy, and overall, Room(s) was leagues more representative of urban sprawl than this.
I can forgive the misleading presentation though, because these 11 tracks are among the most gorgeous and stylish the producer has to his name. While the highlight of Room(s) was the rapid fire vocal hooks, here they come off as second to the gushing tranquility of the keyboards and atmosphere. This is a good thing, because I for one feel these types of vocal samples have become so overused to the point that they are in danger of losing all their emotive qualities. Vapor City feels like a more reserved and mature take on jungle than we are used to, and despite the often triple digit bpms, the experience becomes somewhat relaxing after the first initial listens. Take the circling piano chords that lead “Infinite Us” for example; they’re more reminiscent of classic house, or something Terre Thaemlitz would release under his DJ Sprinkles alias, rather than anything boundary pushing. Similarly — even if it may only be an interlude — “Vizion” is 2 and a half minutes of glossy ambient bliss. Some may see this as Machinedrum spreading his concepts too thinly across his relatively lengthy tracks, but others will see it as a refinement of his natural skills.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot happening in this music — it just isn’t always happening right in front of us. This is the sound of Machinedrum at his most soft and subtle. Halfway through “You Still Lie” we are gifted with a cascading choir of angelic synthesizers, and the penultimate “Baby it’s You” even sees him venturing back to his folktronica roots to blissful effect. The shifting glitch-hop of “SeeSea” is another tastefully composed highlight. In fact, even in the cases where the vocal hook sounds eerily similar, every track here has its own identity, creating a rather varied 45 minutes.
It’s far from perfect though — sure Vapor City is undeniably gorgeous, but it never impacts the listener on an truly emotional level. The reason for this is because everything is so fashionably produced and inoffensive that there are little to no risks at stake. Instead, this is an album that proves to be appealing in a much more simple and direct way than what many fans may have hoped for. However, if you’re just in the mood for an entrancing dance album to brighten up the environment, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
2.) Infinite Us*
3.) Don’t 1 2 Lose U
4.) Center Your Love
6.) Rise N Fall*
8.) U Still Lie
10.) Baby It’s You*
Album Highlight – *