In the 1982 cult film Blade Runner, Harrison Ford's Deckard trudges through the sodden streets of a nightmarish dystopian city with the unenviable aim of killing a gang of clones. In the end, it seems, the movie's point is that these wretched creatures have as much humanity as ordinary folk, whose morals have been blunted by modern life.
Travis Stewart, the man behind Machinedrum, must have had Ridley Scott's much-praised movie at the front of his mind when he created his most recent releases: the album Vapor City [Amazon.com] and the EPs Vizion Centre and Fenris District [Amazon.com].
Originally from North Carolina in the United States, Machinedrum has in recent times attracted the kind of praise invariably laid at the doors of electronica Jedi masters including Bonobo, Aphex Twin and Burial. And it's certainly no mistake – last year's Vapor City, a sprawling smorgasbord of drum'n'bass, eclectic samples and hip sampling, could easily accompany any movie about futuristic chaos with a film noir sheen.
Exposed to many forms of music growing up, in a country with a comparatively small electronica quotient, it should come as no surprise that Stewart has many alter egos. He’s currently known as Machinedrum, but in the recent past has also called himself Neon Black, Syndrone and Tstewart. Not only that, he’s one half of Sepalcure with Praveen Sharma, part of JETS with Jimmy Edgar, and half of Dream Continuum, with Om Unit.
He’s a man with many names who dabbles in just as many musical styles, including drum’n’bass, hip-hop, ambient, dubstep and pop. His curious, incomparable production style paints him as an audio detective, seeing soundscape potential where others don’t. He’s a Deckard of the mixing desk, forever picking up clues, following leads and twisting his subjects for more information.
About Vapor City, Stewart says himself: "VC is an album inspired by a dream city. It's become such a recurring dream of mine throughout the past few years that I began creating music to it, a collection of different songs each representing different districts in the city."
The same can be said of his latest EP Fenris District, which was originally intended for release before Vapor City. It's a uniquely atmospheric jaunt through a riotous urban landscape and follows some of the MD template of emotive, stretched vocals, smooth almost touchable bass and incredible tomfoolery with dark synths and beatific beats.
But its tracks suggest that Stewart is moving further out of his own wildly varied comfort zone. On My Mind is a dub-driven, laid-back loopfest of munchkin vocals alongside effects that wouldn't be out of place on a 1990 Commodore 64 platform game called Travis Goes to Town. Neujack features even more skewed vocals, weirdly sequenced handclaps and a strange but reassuring bassline among its many delights. The scary thing is that the creator probably knocked it together on a few wet weekends in Berlin – Stewart's currently based in the German capital.
Back Seat Ho continues the MD theme of shaping a sample to suit a focused but seriously playful agenda. Although a seemingly dumb refrain lifted from a standard and sunny hip-hop track, Back Seat Ho is married to very intelligent keyboard squelches and heady beats. Rustle, a producer from Glasgow in Scotland, does a remarkable remix of the same track. It sounds like some riot's been added to the proceedings, with a thundering drum track and a buzz-saw guitar riff bookending the sound sculpture.
It seems to come from nowhere, this gathering of computer-generated effects, but there is method to his madness. Of Vapor City Stewart says: "In the dream I felt like I knew all the places, I kept seeing the same streets, the same shops and clubs. Weird little details that I kept noticing were recurring and it really started to freak me out that this kept happening. It was the first half of the year that I lived in Berlin. So it started to form this sort of combination architecturally between New York and a bit of Berlin. A sort of old-meets-new sort of architecture. But it was very vast. And I could almost sort of zoom in and see the city for what it was, and kind of get an idea of where I was in the city."
The above quote makes MD sound too intelligent for the clubs, but the fun and tumbling melodies on much of his work suggests that nothing could be farther from the truth.
VC was a concept album about an infinite city with infinite problems and Fenris District is the southern tip, the outpost of Vapor City, a bookend to accompany the long player's big themes. It's further expression of the gruff attitudes and seamless sonic superiority that marked out tunes such as Gunshotta on Vapor City. That was arguably the most arresting track released in any genre during 2013. Listen with headphones and notice the perfect placement, the manipulation of moods and main driving beats if you're seeking confirmation.
Although he’s been making music since the mid 1990s, Machinedrum’s move last year to the UK-based label Ninja Tune marks a new era in his creativity. He says: “I’ve always respected Ninja Tune’s focus on more of a hip-hop and drum’n’bass kind of world, which is the reason I started Machinedrum in the first place. I was trying to explore the relationship between hip-hop and the faster tempos of jungle. I got the sense that they really wanted to help me break into the next level and were going to give me a lot of freedom and help me to come into my own as an artist and not just an electronic musician.”
The release of VC highlighted his seriousness about making serious music. That, along with his recent amazing work on big-name tracks, shows his work is reaching a bigger audience.
Kelis, the ex-wife of Nas and an R&B star in her own right, singled out labelmate Stewart to remix a track on her new album. An already supreme slab of soul is turned into something huge, epic even, by Machinedrum. Broken down, you could argue that he merely adds some synth and warped vocals to a good track. And you'd be right, but the overall effect can't be denied: Runnin' is magically transformed into a gold-plated masterpiece. Many current MD fans have probably been drawn to him by his work with Azealia Banks. Her 2012 single 1991 was his handiwork and proof positive of Machinedrum's pedigree.
For the vaguely intrigued, a good starting point to learn what MD's about is his website Machinedrum.net. It maps out the fictional Vapor City, allows you to become a "citizen" if you like and includes links to startling live shows that further gild the Travis Stewart lily.
How does he do it? Well, as he told XLR8R in 2012: "It all depends on the mood. Sometimes I just feel like making some ambient sort of song, so I'll find field recordings and start adding little melodic things over that. Suddenly, I'll start adding some pulsey bass or something.
“Eventually, I’ll say: ‘Now this needs a beat,’ and I’ve gone way left of that ambient direction. Other times, I’ll find some funny, ghettotech-sounding vocal sample and loop that over and over and throw a beat over it. It’s always changing, it just depends on the mood.”
All of which makes it sound a little too easy but no doubt requires the know-how of a genius-level droid with‑ the world’s biggest collection of German dance music.
Fenris District pinpoints an exciting time for electronica, when one of its most talented producers and artists seems to have set out an awesome route through modern hip-hop, ambient and jungle music. Greater riches are set to emerge from the tireless Machinedrum in his little Berlin bedroom. And though the future, like Deckard's in the foreboding finale, is uncertain, whatever turn Machinedrum's career takes next, it'll involve something unforgettable.
Paul Dorrian is a UK-based freelance journalist.