Review Summary: A mixed batch of bedroom club beats lacking in inspiration reveals Machinedrum at a crossroads, looking back but by no means moving forward
With each new release over the course of a 10 year period, Travis Stewart (either under his own shuffling and shifting Machinedrum moniker, or as one half of current blog darlings Sepalcure) has always found something new to talk about, a new style to ape or appreciate, another intricate detail with which he’s used to slowly expand his already overblown palette. He’s dabbled in idm (his first true love), worked in the world of hip hop, skirted around the notion of going funky, and arrived at a point somewhere between past and future garage, with mementos of his extended vacation proudly on display. With each of his releases, Stewart has always found room to bring in one of his many influences, with sometimes mixed results. This constant change in tone (not so much experimentation as just playfulness and a desire to stay on the cutting edge), while brimming with untold possibilities also produces a rather disconnected back-story for our artist. There’s no clear cut identity or agenda to work with here, just distinction and dead ends. There’s no common ground to work with, no stabilizing momentum so we can attempt to figure him out. Which is exciting in a slightly inconsequential way; sure, to be surprised with every release is a gift that most artists can only dream of manifesting, but we’re being amazed for all the wrong reasons here.
It’s not so much a case that he’s spreading himself too thin, or that he’s hoping to achieve too much with such a limited amount of time. It’s that there’s no constant, no reason to stay in love with him, no need to eagerly await a release destined to sound almost nothing like everything that we admired in the past. But maybe Stewart’s finally realized the benefits of familiar surroundings though; perhaps his time spent flirting with Hotflush has allowed him some breathing room, some much needed rest and reflection. Room(s)
, in a stroke of genius, imitates its namesake by providing just what was needed, miniature suites that lock into Machinedrum’s past and slowly bring everything together in a tangled mix of oscillating bass and 808 thump. In a way, Room(s)
is Travis Stewart coming full circle, returning to his origins but just bringing everything along with him. Which makes for an interesting experience, but while trying to accommodate his often conflicting past he often ends up pairing jarring differences that only add up to a mis-matched result. Despite an apparent need to please, he’s placated far too much to a growing desire; as such his beats spiral off into diluted re-imaginings that fail at establishing any kind of fundamental connection.
There are still moments of undeniable genius though; ‘Sacred Frequency’ is frantic with its somewhat subdued take on the cosmic hop sounds of Flylo and company, ‘GBYE’ (one of two jewels in the crown) is truly delirious with its pitch-shifted vocals and mile-a-minute backbeats; ‘U Don’t Survive’ cruises by under a weighty drum & bass influence, and despite the fact that ‘Door(s)’ nearly trips over its reckless breakbeats and rave fascination it still manages to find a kind of fragmented level ground to disperse its wares on. But what holds this album back from being a stunner, in fact from being even a great album, is Stewart’s frivolous and almost obsessive use of samples. His background in hip hop haunts the album at almost every turn, as he over-applies the now cliche bass vocals to just about everything in sight. Used sparingly, they can effectively intertwine with the framework and turn even the most basic of jaunts into an emotional triumph, here though they’re thrown around almost matter-of-factly, tainting the music and effectively stopping it from reaching any kind of higher ground. On album opener ‘She Died There’, he loops them to the point of insanity, losing any kind of fragmented tale by constantly feeling the need to repeat the words ad infinitum; whatever message he hopes to pass on is surprisingly lost upon us in the repetition. What could have been a simple master-stroke poisons the album into an early grave. Which of course makes the highlights of the album stand out even more, but that of course was never meant to be the point. But even though he potentially condemns the album right at the onset he shamefacedly almost makes up for it on ‘Come1’, as he throws away all previous attachments and coins a leftfield early 90’s house joint and sends it flying on its way. But it’s a success that comes almost too late, as it fails to make up for the mistakes made throughout.
There’s still some moments of complex excellence to be found here, buried in amongst the rough textures and ill-arranged formations. While Room(s)
is the obvious atonement for an apparent restlessness there’s something not quite right in witnessing an artist looking back as opposed to moving forward. And that’s really all anyone ever wants in an artist, to lay down the brickwork and the building blocks and then expand from there. No one is out there watching in awe as an artist deftly moves through a variety of different designs like some kind of eclectic tourist, when there’s already an abundance of artists within those individual scenes constantly updating the blueprints. With Rooms(s)
you get the good and the bad side of Machinedrum, but you also get the turning point in a career; the point where the leader becomes the follower.