Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Machinedrum - Vapor City


Reading material concerning the chronology of electronic music isn't exactly top of my to-cover list at present, but I imagine the gist of its descriptions on such stand-out fields reads like the following: House, the epitome of discovery; Techno, the epitome of voyage; Trance, the epitome of escapism; Breakbeat, the epitome of extroversion. Two decades on it's both hard, yet gladly reassuring, to understand that such sub-genres have managed to withstand the gelled combining and mish-mash of ideas that have spawned a vast trove of tags, both informative and illogical alike. While I'm inclined to raise note to the likes of minimal [techno] & DnB taking stage over their senior predecessors in most corners of the globe, it's equally fair to throw a nod in the direction of artists like Machinedrum whom for the past decade have sought to rediscover perhaps a lost art amongst a creative excess where limits, yes, are endless but the fear of originated identity is never too far from ending up lost to history. Room(s), Travis Stewart's break into the commercial eye two years previous was an interesting (if flawed) conflict of classic jungle grooves and contemporary tonal production, that stood almost against what the likes of Actress, Andy Stott, The Field, Ricardo Villalobos & Pantha Du Prince (to name but a few among the mass of respected artists/producers) have been working around over the past half-decade or so. 

Vapor City is an interesting pitch, for not only does it continue Stewart's fascination in refurbishing the old to tie in with the new, but to throw a joke in here, it acts almost like it's intentionally plagiarised the likes of techno's manifesto in taking the listener places. Influenced by a recurring series of dreams, Vapor City sets itself up to be potentially Stewart's most visual and inspective of records to date; the objective, a ten-track album in which each piece represents a particular street/area/district to Stewart's fantastical metropolis of the same name. Gunshotta shows no hesitation in not only pulling the listener in to its lower-level inner-sanctum abode, but it presides over its palette of residential blocks and paving stone, with a sense of relative discomfort and apathy. The track's darkening, slick percussion and bass synths immediately bring jolt to that evening tension - pitch-shifted vocals pleasantly sliding on groove while at the same time leaving a marking trail of echo alongside the mellow electronics - almost acting like a warnful welcoming-in to said district's rough neighbourhood, but emphasizing more-so the rich depth to such scenery. 

Infinite Us cleverly parts company from the residency as if setting up a night of luxury in Vapor's perhaps brighter stretch of activity. Despite the continuing front of crisp hi-hats and percussion still marking their territory amid the chasm of production space, Stewart decisively incorporates jazz-like flickers of acoustic piano - and a further emphasis too on dynamics and accent - to further identify with the nightly atmosphere of his destination, and thus provide a pleasantly more inviting aroma to the track's more tenser, rough-cut edges. That's the crucial point: inviting. While Stewart continues to lay precedence on his beat patterns and the way they generate these contrasting and conflicting sways with the vocal harmonies and synth tone, this slightly more fractious marriage of layers doesn't feel necessarily distracting or frictional. Don't 1 2 Lose U if anything seems to capitalize on Machinedrum's placenscy of beats against atmosphere. In moments such as these, Stewart's alignment (or lack of) of beats and harmony seem to both capture a feeling of closure and depth between the district borders of the track's shuffling hi-hats and bass frequencies, while at the same time vying to project with what is a rather enticing spread of spacious, melodic synths. 

But it's moments such as on Center Your Love that truly feel like human, living-breathing opportunities Stewart so successfully brings life to within his texturally inanimate stature of beats. The vocals are what grab the listener, and it's through the track's female ushering of these tentative, emotive loops where colour and liveliness finally bloom into Machinedrum's posting of grey city-block synths and multi-storey beats. The way the crisp strum of guitar most notably is placed at the cross-roads between present and distant perspective, matches superbly with the music's parallel of vocals beside such dense percussion. Rise N Fall follows in the same light but appears to take the decision that like many a complex highway or network of traversing, all routes eventually end up as one. This wanting to combine the two avenues into one unilateral delivery of personality and precision, while initially slow to get going does draw some concern from myself over whether the audibility would endure such an expansive substance. So it's with ease and exciting that I find Machinedrum's use of key change and progressively building tension of breakbeat drums, that adds such an impacting effect to the rush of vocals that equally feel a lot more substantial in Stewart's production this time. 

The clever delivery of beats and harmonics together, rather than apart as a result, leads me to another refreshing discovery to how Stewart seems to have both expanded on and refined throughout, when it comes to the aesthetically and atmospheric delivery of his sounds. Like Data Romance's efforts beforehand, and too with where Gold Panda decorated geographic specifics with a narrative rather than a status, Machinedrum instead goes about his music with a degree of speculation and slight ponderous curiosity as to its less obvious or intentionally subversive elements instead. While the focus not be as psychologically dark as Other or as solidly compact as Half Of Where You Live was, there's still an underlining mystery and demand for imagery, reflectively, running through whereby it strengthens the conceptual appeal even more - adding immediacy to how Stewart's breakbeat and vocal effect is instead felt, rather than heard. It's a shame a track like Seesea doesn't live up - or perhaps continue - Machinedrum's gallant build of imagery and vastness of space and locale. Tracks like these, while understandably content in emphasizing dense building-block like stature of effects atop instrumentation, don't feel as audibly motivated or intent to providing context as former composite; the production especially lacking, stuck treading the same ground hoping something will come to it as opposed to the other way around. These blips however are few and far-between; helped perhaps by Stewart's decision to treat his fantasy as a shady likeliness unwilling to let off, rather than outwardly glaring hotspots of different shape or size to be picked out. The benefit therefore, is that the devil lies in the detail, and the attraction is met through the finer elements to Machinedrum's sound. 

Eyesdontlie is a perfect example of Stewart treating his music with pride and purpose - thus granting a kind of forensic harmony via a focus on the tentative melodies and rhythms, while at the same time granting grander conflicts of vocals amid perilous, driving beats and clouded bass lines. The way Stewart goes about inducing more and more delicate knob-turnings of pitch change especialy, as much as he shunts them in parts to a particular range - in a track itself shifting between conflict and calm - creates an interesting fractioning of tone against what is a flavoursome array of percussion and beat textures that are in parts sleak and dissipating, and in others rough and gritty. Baby Its U is a strange send-off; strange in the sense that it doesn't act like a final piece, or in the case of a narrative, the final act/scene. But once you cast bafflement aside, the first realization listeners will take, is Stewart's impressive precendece on making things feel darker and tentative, as opposed to just sounding it. It's thanks to the track's thick but sought textural aesthetic - the delicately crisp finger-clicks of percusson and mud-squelching slab of beats ending up wrapping the piece to the point of its being overwhelming. Amidst this, the vocals - which are kept clean and devoid of effect - amplify not only a kind of vast human dynamic to the piece, but too a sign of hollowness. And tying in with the later bloom of low frequency bass and swirling synthesizer drone, there's an almighty breath of life and light brought to Machinedrum's grand stage, while not excessively colourful or smokescreened, from the shuffling rhythms and flow of the piece manages to bring to surface a certainty there's a living, breathing hive of activity brimming among this locale.

Some of the more skeptical listeners (those especially whom may not have invested as much time into either House's or Jungle's scattered divisions as others) admittedly may want to raise a hand against the album's somewhat monolithic expression in terms of its sum total - looked at from the perspective of a collective whole. Admittedly, as I've perhaps unintentionally lead onto via previous points, not all of Machinedrum's ideas to drive narration through his soundscapes end up with a convincing story or reason to soak up visuals amid such dense and trafficked production. But even with these slight issues - which, to raise an equally-high hand, are likely only going to kick up a fuss should attention not be mostly fixed on listening to the dam thing - Vapor City is one of those charming (if not enshrouding) albums that speaks volumes on more than just how a track flows or what its structural values are, whether production-wise or relation-wise. Travis Stewart has crafted a vast but immaculate capital to be his foot-scampering melting-pot. Like a Jungle-equated city that never sleeps, scenes and spots of city life come and go - always making sure to leave some visually cunning mark on its onlooker. The bustling hive of under-city suburbs, the lively glitter of entertainment, the sprawling panic of interjoining highways; there's hardly a city trope Machinedrum doesn't cover with both tension and tenderness. And to be honest, I'm quite seduced by it.
~Jordan

8.1

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