If Travis Stewart is one thing, he’s prolific. A veteran of the New York and Berlin scenes, Stewart’s stream of strong releases is matched only by his collaborative material, both with Jimmy Edgar as JETS and with Braille as Sepalcure. Yet even considering his reputation as a restlessly talented producer, Stewart’s career remains an anomaly: how many artists are capable of both producing for a mainstream rapper and securing a hallowed 5/5 from dance authority Resident Advisor? The album in question, 2011’s superb Room(s) on Planet Mu, hints at the explanation. Here Stewart cemented his trademark sounds – urgent, jukey percussion and colourful melodies – in a work which fused countless styles into a dazzling hybrid. Here was a producer obviously forward-thinking but also impressively versatile, leaving a pair of enormous shoes to fill for follow-up LP Vapor City.
The album in question is a concept piece of sorts, each track a soundtrack to neighbourhoods of a city that Stewart frequently visits in his dreams. It bears many of the traits of Room(s), from the still-fresh fusion of juke and jungle to the blissed-out melodies which adroitly counterpoint the frantic rhythms. Obviously these sounds can’t be as captivating second time around, but Stewart does a good job of it, offering a worthy successor which perhaps only suffers from a narrowed focus compared to its predecessor.
As on the memorable She Died There, Vapor City opens with a compelling sense of desolation in the form of Gunshotta’s frosty junglism. Here throaty bass growls beneath roiling breaks, later adorned by a spitfire ragga vocal loop which brings the dread inna 90’s style. From here on out it’s largely a smoother journey, as Stewart offers softened breakbeats, liberally adorned with breathy vocals and emotive melodic movements. It’s an interesting approach, particularly given that the current hardcore revival tends to revel in the style’s toughness and menace, and at first proves refreshing. The technique is perfected on the heavenly Center Your Love, where delicate breaks tumble beneath sweetened guitar and lilting female vocals, before giving way to Stewart’s trademark frothing rave chords.
These softer numbers make for pretty listening, but the formula grows weary as the album progresses: the sweeter concoctions, from Infinite Us to Seesea via Don’t 1 2 Lose You, shine less brightly when placed next to their similar brethren. It’s unfortunate, because this is clearly the work of an eminently talented producer – the acrobatic vocal manipulations of Seesea are a case in point.
The mood may get a bit lost somewhere across the album’s midsection, but Stewart re-takes the reins for Vapor City’s outstanding final suite. U Still Lie is an instant winner, where echo-chamber futurism takes form with a slow trip hop swagger, as half-heard rocker’s croons (perhaps Stewart’s own?) are slowly submerged by a glistening 80s synthline. In an album which brings tropes of dance music past so determinedly into the future, it’s a gorgeous moment of retro fervour which warrants repeated spins.
This leads straight onto the straight-up album highlight Eyesdontlie, a killer fusion which twins pitch-bent vocal loops over steel-plated snares to intoxicating effect. These two tracks, along with Gunshotta, show just how brilliant Machinedrum sounds when he lets the darkness in, and many might wish he did so a little bit more. Any tourist will find something to love in Stewart’s well-realised dreamscape, and while it might not mark a huge departure from the sound of Room(s), it proves another welcome exploration of the mind of the restless artist. Ultimately though, while the album’s lovestruck compositions are undeniably attractive, they lack the weight and memorability of those vital trips to Vapor City’s roughest neighbourhoods.