, November 1st, 2016 15:44
The opening few notes of ‘Lapis’, the first track of Travis Stewart’s first album in effectively three years as Machinedrum, sound a bit like the build up to a Years & Years single. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I like a bit of Ollie Alexander & co., but it seems a radical shift for Stewart, who made his name as the creator of brooding amalgamations of dubstep and Chicago house on albums like Room(s). But times have changed for Machinedrum, and in the years since 2013’s Vapor City, he’s fallen in love and moved from Berlin to sunny LA: Human Energy ultimately reflects this bright new life Stewart has built for himself. Ok, it’s not quite Years and Years pop fare, but this is an album that brims with joy and enthusiasm.
It’s not just a few pop licks here and a sunny outlook there that set Human Energy apart from Stewart’s previous output, however, and in fact the album reflects a trend that has dominated electronic music for the past couple of years - namely the intertwining of formerly underground concerns with mainstream pop. Where once clear divides existed, we’re now seeing that a fascination with the energies of pop does not preclude the idea of creating challenging music, and indeed, conversely, that mainstream pop of the most popular variety can incorporate sounds once deemed too “difficult” for its audiences. Travis Stewart has often used vocals, or more precisely, voices in his music as Machinedrum, but those were samples that he would loop and manipulate until they became claustrophobic mantras as intrinsic to the rhythmic thrust of his tracks as the bass drops and snare snaps.
For Human Energy, however, Stewart has recruited actual vocalists such as Ruckazoid (‘Morphogene’), MeLo-X (‘Angel Speak’), Rochelle Jordan (‘Tell U’) and Jesse Boykins III (‘Celestial Levels’), all of whom operate at the interstices of r‘n’b and pop rather than pure dance. Their clearly identifiable presences add warmth and humanity to Machinedrum’s synthetic electronica, although he allows himself the opportunity to toy with their words, notably pitch-shifting Jordan’s vocals to the nth degree. Around these singers, Stewart spins whirlwinds of infectious beats, swirling synths and supple bass for his most upbeat tracks in years. ‘Do it 4 U’, which features a singer known as D∆WN is a perfect example: her voice is rich in the kind of emotional affectations one expects from r’n’b, but is warped by Stewart’s effects whilst all around rattling beats and glistening synth lines drive the piece into the skies with almost relentless enthusiasm. Jesse Boykins III’s voice is similarly manipulated, this time looped and laden with chorus until it sounds like an euphoric choir, swept along on stop-start pads and video game-like synth patters. ‘Dos Puertas’, featuring Brooklyn singer Kevin Hussein, takes its cues from hip hop, with Hussein’s moody raps buffeted by shape-shifting swathes of sequencer build-ups and chattering kick drum thumps.
This delirious pace rarely lets up across the entirety of Human Energy. After all, the clue’s in the title. Even the voice-less pieces and chopped through with those omnipresent chattering beats. ‘White Crown’, featuring guitarist Tosin Abasi in a neat touch, is even more frenetic, the beats racing ahead at breakneck speed through a nice ambient drift to slam into a kaleidoscope of guitar swoops and crackling electronic effects. After a while, such frantic energy can get exhausting, and fans of Room(s) or Vapor City might feel bewildered by the whole thing, but throughout the morass, Stewart’s keen ear for rhythm and melody shine through, and his exploration of pop and r’n’b finds more common ground with his own aesthetic that might have been expected. Maybe when the apparent emotional sugar rush that Human Energy was born out of has relinquished a tad, it will prove to be a path to a brand new sound. The potential is certainly massive.