ALBUM: Fenris District EP
The past half-a-year has been devoted to urban development for IDM stalwart, Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum. Having unveiled the partially-constructed Vapor City along with an album of the same title, Stewart is now busy fleshing out details of his airy, palatial metropolis (digitalized in an interactive website and map for its citizen-fans). These blueprints may seem ambitious at first glance, but there are few who can compare to the North Carolinian’s industry. In fact, Machinedrum is just one of Stewart’s many projects—that includes his post/future bass interpretations with Praveen Sharma for Sepalcure—infiltrating the airwaves with forward-looking dance music since the turn of the century. Yet, it is his Machinedrum moniker that has garnered the most attention of late, coming to inhabit a lavish dancefloor sound in the breakthrough Room(s) LP from 2011.
Distributed through the UK-based Planet Mu label, Room(s) saw Machinedrum directing his drill’n’bass geometries into more coherent structures, choosing to focus on the contrast between pleasantly-odd melodies and rolling rhythms in lieu of the more erratic experimentation of his prior genre-travels. This focus evidently paid off, leading Machinedrum to sign with the well-established-yet-independent label Ninja Tune, upon which the full-length Vapor City was released. Though reminiscent of the architecture in Room(s), Vapor City saw Stewart lean towards more tender, cloudy creations: blurring footwork and juke’s tactile percussion and sample arrangements with breezy synth pads and obscured voices. In reference to a dream-city (that Stewart envisioned during phases of dislocation in New York and Berlin), Vapor City seems to discover some distorted sense of refuge—where Room(s) can be neurotic and tense. Machinedrum retreated to even softer lines and angles in his follow-up Vizion EP, elaborating on the breathy pondering of its title-track.
But this effort finds itself in a different sector of Stewart’s imagined metropolis, where the beats are gritty and harder-hitting, delineating solid shapes that his last few works shied away from. Located at the southern tip of Vapor City, Fenris District features a roughened, street-wise soundscape with sirens and slangy-vocals ringing out over the backdrop. Stewart claims that the EP represents “the clubbing/nightlife district;” and indeed, it contains more of the colors found in the darker moments of neon-lit single, “Eyesdontlie,” than the warm, fuzzy lights splayed across the rest of Vapor City. This is big-room aesthetics oozing with layers of ear-tickling dancefloor textures. As such, singing is used sparingly in Fenris District, and the sweetly pitched vocals seeping out of Room(s) and Vapor City only occasionally shutter through the air-vents. Instead, Stewart’s sample-usage concentrates on the short, iterative vocal-splicing style of Chicago footwork, providing a ghetto swagger to his emotive progressions. Still, complex futuristic chords saturate the EP: whether plush synths unwinding through the expanse of opening track “Back Seat Ho,” or lurching dub-stabs skidding along “On My Mind.”
Machinedrum’s productions always manage to convey the weightlessness of high speed, caught in between his 160-170BPM rhythms and gliding harmonic motion. Spread over deep roomy basslines, the tracks seem to fall through gravity-defying spaces. Even the vocal volleying in “Neujack” is exhilarating in a nervy kind of way despite its slower tempo. Some tunes admittedly carry on for a bit longer than necessary, but their utility as DJ-friendly tracks offers an explanation for prolonged intros and outros. That’s the point though: completed by a “dub-fi-dub” soundclash of “Eyesdontlie” with Sherwood Pinch (Adrian Sherwood and Pinch) and a heavy remix of “Back Seat Ho” by Glasgow-based Dubstep artist Rustie, this EP is clearly intended for dimly-lit dancefloors. Stewart is simply guiding us through the underground scenes of his imagination, where fragmented voices trail over punchy bass.
“I’m a back seat ho/ She’s a back seat ho”