MACHINEDRUM – VAPOR CITY (NINJA TUNES)
While Travis Stewart’s previous album Room(s) took the template of footwork and juke and twisted it into something new and fresh, Vapor City appears way too eager to cram more in – almost a statement of his wide musical influences – and, sadly, it’s none the better for it. For all its quality (and there is quality in abundance here,) it just doesn’t hang together as satisfyingly as his 2011 masterpiece. The juke influence is still clear but Stewart too often looks for something more, some other way to flex his production muscles. It’s this other way which confuses the album.
Opening track ‘Gunshotta’ is a satisfyingly rigid rolling number which melds snapping jungle percussion with warms synth stabs and a classic soulful vocal leaveing the track sounding a bit like Burial got lost in 1993. A good thing by the way. Then you get the ragga-chatting ‘gunshotta’ sample itself which, frankly, adds nothing. Simply there, seemingly, to add a touch of toughness to an otherwise smooth track. In fact, it’s just jarring and feels like he didn’t just trust the track on its own merits. ‘Center Your Love’ sees Stewart veering into down-tempo territory which comes off just sounding a bit vague and non-committal. Easily forgotten.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, he’s still and incredible producer and the standout tracks are actually the ones which most resemble his work on Room(s) and 2011’s Sepalcure collab with Praveen Sharma. ‘Don’t 1 2 Lose U’ couples old school stabs with a hypnotically longing vocal refrain and beautifully controlled 808 drums while ‘Eyesdontlie’ is just a banger, no questions asked. Tense atmospherics, his trademark vocal chops and thunderous bass. Just the sort of haunting, gully terror which would shudder the foundations of any warehouse at 4am. It’s just the sum of the parts are more than the piece as a whole.
His inspiration while making this album was a recurring dream of an imaginary city, something Vangelis did over 20 years ago with the Blade Runner soundtrack (Vangelis is explicitly given a nod on ‘U Still Lie’ although both Kuedo and Ikonika have nailed that particular sound with much more success recently.) But if the resulting melting pot of sounds is an attempt to honestly stick to this theme, the result is the opposite – it actually leaves the album without a sense of direction. A collection of some great moments then but not convincing in its entirety.