Machinedrum, Room(s)

[Planet Mu]

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In the game for well over a decade, Travis Stewart has long been in the business of forging his own path. Over the course of more albums than most of your favorite producers could ever hope to make, he’s inimitably fused highbrow electronica, hip-hop, and a whole host of club genres, using his undeniable pop sensibility as superglue. But sometime late last year, as Stewart recently told LWE, that path came upon a clearing: taken with the notion of “genius inspiration,” Stewart started letting his tracks do something like produce themselves, treating the studio as an extension of his psyche — less grueling attention to the details, more commitment to the ecstasy of a brand new idea. With his Sepalcure project (with Praveen “Braille” Sharma) signed to Hotflush Recordings and his last Machinedrum records appearing on LuckyMe and Planet Mu, Stewart had been flirting with post-dubstep with increasing frequency; so it’s hardly surprising that the sounds springing forth from his subconscious were in dialog with what’s happening at the forefront of dance music at the moment. But Room(s), the fruit of Stewart’s new production ethic, proves that music can sound as 2011 as any album put out this year without sounding much like anything else.

Plenty of bass music touchstones permeate the latest incarnation of Machinedrum — admittedly, there would probably be no Room(s) without juke — but this album feels like an entire music scene unto itself. Indeed, Machinedrum’s sound here is so fully formed, focused, and confident, it’s hard to believe this isn’t a document of some already-codified subgenre. Rather than hang out in the tempo range where dubstep feels most comfortable or dial into a house groove, Room(s) motors right past its peers: the slowest cut on this record would still require considerable pitching-down to slot next to most bass music. Yet the faster Machinedrum goes, the closer he brings us to something like the sublime. From the opening drum skitters of “She Died There” straight through to the misty-eyed “Where Did We Go Wrong?,” Stewart locks our heads into a half-time nod and coaxes us to lean our seats back a few clicks. Save Autonomic, I’m not sure any producer has ever made breakneck music fit into so groovy and stretched-out a pocket.

Stewart’s gift for melody certainly helps. While Room(s) hits hard, the complexity of Machinedrum’s chords — in both the sophistication of his progressions and the world of emotions they evoke — strips it of any malice. In another producer’s hands, a track like “Now U Know Tha Deal 4 Real” (apparently the tune that launched the entire Room(s) project) would be menacing and overly boastful, but Stewart, placing minor-key bounce in the thick of a Lone-like haze, keeps things playful. It’s the same story on “Door(s),” where Stewart’s arrangements exude confidence with his hands kept firmly on the reins of his galloping synths. “The Statue” uses juke drums more as a drone than a beat, letting slowly morphing chords push things forward. And it’s hard to imagine a track more uplifting than the ecstatic “GBYE,” where the heartfelt admission of “I love you” softens the blow of over-the-top, undulating vocals and impossibly dense pitched percussion. From start to finish, Room(s) is a balancing act, but Stewart’s production excels with the profound cool and astonishing grace of a tightrope walker.

But what’s truly astounding — dare I say moving — about this record is its melding of precision studio chops and honest-to-goodness humanity: this is music that would be equally impossible without technology AND without a beating heart. The sheer joy and warmth conveyed by a track like the Ollie & Jerry-referencing “U Don’t Survive,” where a soulful voice declares quite convincingly that “now is the time to be alive,” is difficult to shake off. The track nearly bursts at the seams — the chunkiest of breakbeats butts heads with exploding synths and gigantic vocals — but Stewart knows just how to convert unwieldy sonics into one heck of a bear hug. But the record’s greatest journey, one that may justify the admission cost all on its own, comes in the form of “Come1.” As epic as it is intimate, it’s difficult to describe in a way that makes it sound possible. Starting off a bit like Soundstream on crank, “Come1” settles into a drum groove worthy of Steve Gadd. As nearly choral vocals begin to edge forward, bittersweet guitars pluck in on a counter-melody. Eventually, though, they’re all that’s left, and it’s one of the more beautiful turns I’ve heard a dance record take in some time: the beat evaporates, and breathy harmonies, sensitively plucked guitars, and a touch of hiss merge with the horizon like a sunset. Yes, it’s a little bit indie, but yes, it absolutely works. And like Room(s) as a complete package, it has to be heard to be believed.

Machinedrum’s latest and greatest is certainly my album of the year so far — if you’re anything like me, you’ll be unable to listen to much else for a few weeks after you get it in your hands — but such a distinction doesn’t really do the album justice. Rather than bring bass music to some sort of pinnacle or even logical end, Room(s) feels like an outlier, at least for the moment. (Give dance music a couples years, and perhaps there will be club nights dedicated to just this sort of stuff.) But perhaps that speaks to where we’re at right now with post-dubstep: if no one’s sure exactly what we’re supposed to call 90 percent of the music we listen to, then Travis Stewart has made an album of ultimate tunes that’s truly deserving of its inscrutability.

Keith Pishnery  on July 26, 2011 at 11:54 AM

Excellent review. Much like my own thoughts since hearing it.

Blaktony  on July 27, 2011 at 11:07 AM

I’ll say this: i haven’t heard the LP but, if it’s as exciting as the 2 cuts represented here i’m a fan. Nice work.


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