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 ﬁnd his feet alone. Now, 12 years on from the ﬁrst 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.
Vapor City sees Stewart tackle one of the most ambitious projects of his career – a concept album centred around a series of reoccurring dreams. In interviews Stewart has described these dreams as being set within a fantastical city – a composite construct forged from all Stewart’s memories and experiences after a decade of touring. It appeared in his dreams, he explained, as a “sort of blend of New York and Berlin, but also kind of borrowing from all places in the world, because that’s what this city was becoming in my head”. With this city as the centre point, Stewart set about composing the new album with each track used to represent a different district or aspect of Vapor City. It’s an ambitious enterprise – and one that Stewart tackles in a number of remarkable ways.
The name of the LP is certainly aptly chosen – Vapor City is a record pervaded with a sense of muggy humidity, a heavy haze that clings to every kick and snare. The sense of close, sultry background noise hanging from every track conjures the impression of a city caught moments before a tropical storm. It’s an intriguing development from Stewart’s earlier productions, where stark minimalism and a “more-is-less” attitude took precedence. Now, as he puts it, the music given an ambient canvas of “vinyl crackles, water streams, static tones” – anything, he says, to give the music “a world for it to exist in”.
With all this going on, it’s no surprise that Vapor City is a record that is all to easy to lose yourself within. Opening track ‘Gunshotta’, for instance, exhibits a staggering level of depth and complexity. Inspired by the sinisterly named ‘Gunshotta Avenue’ of Stewart’s dreams, it vividly manifests that street “ﬁlled with crime, paranoia and darkness”. Plaintive opening strains are slowly replaced by angry rudeboi vocals and a gritty, surging tangle of bass and snare, all coloured by the city’s murky, nocturnal glow. Every hi-hat is ﬁltered and every drumbeat submerged in Stuart’s orchestrated cloak of city-born distortion.
The album highlight, however, comes only when Machinedrum take a step out from the shadows, with the tranquil shoegaze number ‘Center Your Love’. Awash with technicoloured, luminescent synths splashed over a sedate, loping, drum line, it’s a track seemingly calibrated for tranquil contentment.
Growing up in a veritable backwater of the electronic music scene obviously had a few disadvantages. But that initial isolation has conferred a few beneﬁts, too – when electronic music seems increasingly about working to a formula, about pushing the right buttons and ticking the right boxes, Stewart is proving gloriously immune to such constraints. As the album demonstrates, he’s always preferred making his own boxes and ticking those instead.