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Vapor City, the new album from Machinedrum
audio360.org> > music > > Vapor City, the new album from Machinedrum

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

by Michael Mercer & Kevin Venable


Machinedrum's Vapor City became one of my most anticipated albums this year even though I never heard of the artist!

He was born Travis Stewart in North Carolina in 1982. The name Machinedrum lept off the page at me as I thought: Wow, someone named themselves after a high end analog drum machine! They should mean bizness, judging by that classic name. Then the news came: This was the artists’ first release on Ninja Tune. That whet my aural appetite immediately. Ninja Tune has become one of two labels I trust for underground alternative and electronica. The other being Warp Records, both having a high level of consistency. As coffee was brewing in the morning I sat down at my computer and searched the MOG streaming service for Machinedrum. The first single from Vapor City, “Eyesdontlie” was available. I slipped my Sennheiser HD-25-1 IIs over my ears and hit play.

An ethereal keyboard pad floated into existence as a haunting vocal melody slithered it's way into my consciousness. My eyes closed as I was taken instantly to a different place. As the first bass notes assaulted my senses, my eyes snapped back open and I scrambled over to Amazon to pre-order the vinyl 2 LP version. I knew I had to have this the day it was released. The tribal percussion was hypnotic, and as the bottom dropped during the breakdown I was thankful I had a powerful amplifier. I was instantly anxious about getting the vinyl LP.

This music deserves the best you can give it: Analog or digital. There was something fresh about the sounds in "Eyesdontlie". It was so many things that I like about good ambient music rolled into one: It was quiet and poignant, cerebral but not invasive. The track also slammed: A key element in soulful electronic music. I could hardly wait for delivery.

Vapor City LP design and packaging

Release day finally arrived, and I actually avoided streaming the album as I wanted to experience this in way I haven't in quite some time. So I patiently waited for UPS. When it finally arrived that evening I hastily removed it from it's shipping sleeve, revealing beautiful gate-fold packaging, with grey scale art for each of the 10 tracks and white vinyl with black splatter and lines. I realized I wouldn't have time to do a proper listening that night so I set the album aside. I waited till the next morning before placing the needle in the groove.

My anticipation was pretty high when I finally laid the first LP on the platter, but my first impression wasn't of the music at all, it was of silence. Ninja Tune has done an outstanding job not only with the packaging of this record but with the sonics as well. It is one of the best mastered and pressed vinyl editions I have purchased all year. The overall presentation is textured beautifully. Everything from top to bottom shines through. If only more LP pressings sounded like this! The sound is reminiscent of Nosaj Thing's Home LP. The bass thumps with abandon, the midrange is enchanting and coherent, and the highs are wide open. Not bad huh?

Vapor City is a concept album.

Each track exhibits characteristic of an area of the fictitious city of the albums name. I found this had little impact on my initial listening as the sounds on this album don't remind me of a city persee. However, I have a feeling it had a huge impact on the creation of the album, because this is no mere collection of tunes. The moods and textures flow seamlessly from track to track, building a construct of something much bigger than the sum of its parts, like a city. The fact that Stewart has been honing his craft since childhood, starting on guitar around the age of 5 before moving on to traditional and African percussion, and finally electronic music before he even reached High School is highly evident in both the compositional and production quality of this record.

Polyrhythmic percussion lines and sneaky counterpunctual harmonies, along with melodies that actually stay with you after the album is complete offer a depth that implores repeat listening while the sheer beauty of the synth and guitar tones makes each listen an immense pleasure. All these complimentary ambient elements collide in a magnificent collage of low frequency darkness and synthesized particles of grey and white. There is starkness in Vapor City and it's captured via airy percussion, eerily fascinating stabs and other triggered noises. The basslines are well textured and deep and could, given enough wattage, shake the foundation of a city not constructed of Vapor.

Travis Stewart, Machinedrum

Doing research on Machinedrum during the course of this review told me that Travis Stewart’s Machinedrum project predates the Elekton Machinedrum Analog drum computer by four years, though both released their first effort in 2001. This is a quality record: A highly enjoyable experience. Modern experimental electronic music has some creative giants, notably Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Four Tet, Eskmo, Amon Tobin, and Nosaj Thing to name a few.

Travis Stewart’s Machinedrum has not yet reached those lofty heights, but Vapor City shows he has the skills and creativity to perhaps join them. His work sounds new and familiar at the same time. This is a splendid sonic characteristic. It makes it easier for his music to remain contemporary. Though I’m sure none of this factors into Stewart’s everyday thinking. He’s busy composing eloquent electronic music for the most sophisticated listener as well as the streaming passer-by. We can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.

If experimental concept music like this strikes you, pick up this LP. It’s perfect late-night driving music too: Nothing but the lights of the dashboard and Vapor City crankin’ on the car system. Sounds like a fantastic voyage. We can’t get enough of it. It’s cerebral, but it’s also very easy to listen to. Machinedrum has come out swinging with this release. Let’s see where it takes him.

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