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White Noise: Machinedrum – Room(s)

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Machinedrum – Room(s)

Label: Planet Mu

I've been working on a review for this album before DJ Diamond's Flight Muzik (the other big footwork LP of the last month or so) even came out, yet the review didn't come easy. Even though these are two immensely talented producers weaving better-produced compositions out of the same juke cloth, it seems to me the intent of these albums could hardly be more different. Footwork originated with the dancing style of the same name in Chicago a couple of years back, and Diamond's LP was a celebration of the different styles it could take in while welcoming a whole new audience to the genre, and to a great extent was a success. But Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, for whom this is in fact the 7th album (although you might not know it), seems to be driving at something else.

The celebrated vocals are both ubiquitous and surprisingly deep in the mix, less adding to the dance staples of rhythm or beat in their clipped sample-form and more evoking mood and atmosphere. On opener She Died There the vocal sample never stops after it starts, just submerging and re-appearing at different points over the stutteringly fast beats, and it doesn't quite feel like they're being used to the same effect as standard (and generally oversexed) juke vocals. Because I suppose at its heart this isn't a footwork album, it's not really a dance album, and it's only questionably an album designed to be listened to at home; so the only conclusion I can draw is that this is something blinding and new. In fact, it's easier to ascertain the quality of this record than label it in any way, because from the composition side of things it's absolutely fantastic. The production is detailed and always extraordinarily fast and confident without ever causing a sense of fatigue. It's also sequenced flawlessly, following a mood arch that starts with the paranoia of the aforementioned opener, rises to the ecstatic high of Come1 and ends in the atmospheric uncertainty of closer Where Did We Go Wrong with all the requisite stages in between.

It's hard to take the LP apart for discussion as it all hangs together so delicately, but suffice to say none of the tracks feel out of place and each opens up its own pleasures and individual qualities with repeat listens. Sacred Frequency is an early highlight, layering searingly bright synths with frantic rhythms and a submerged vocal sample that brings a darker quality to the sound, lending the track a depth that easily outstrips most of Stewart's contemporaries. Another euphorically upbeat track is the album centrepiece Come1 in which Stewarts abandons the untreated drums of his juke stablemates to contrast stabby rave piano chords with a free jazz rhythm, both a great achievement and the kind of detail it is absolutely unnecessary to notice in order to enjoy the track.

This track is followed by another fantastic cut, Youniverse, which offers a darker energy through fever-pitch beats where it sounds like you can hear the hand slapping the drumhead. This is twinned with a undulating organ tone that shifts in pitch, adding an oddly unsettling warmth to proceedings. The middle belt of the LP is fortified by another brilliant track immediately after, the unbelievably energetic GBYE in which micro-edited samples duel over an insanely dense drum pattern and you can just hear a snatch of 'I love you' before the sample is whipped away and replaced.

Towards the end of the album there are a few tracks that veer slightly from expectations. In Lay Me Down the vocals are twisted into something that sounds almost tender, like a footwork-style RnB ballad, but there is still an insistence that every space in the track is filled; by a beat, by a synth, by a human voice. Which brings me to a parallel that you might've already seen coming. The stone I must touch is of course one of the only untouchable 'dance' albums in the last 10 years, Burial's masterwork Untrue. Now I'll say straight out, this album is not as good as Untrue (but then, what is?) But it combines the washes of digital production with the incongruous appearances of human voices to a similar end; to evoke an emotional impact. And I do genuinely find this a moving album at some points. Come1's ecstasy dissolves into the ether like the emotion itself, the voice on U Don't Survive soulfully states “Now is the time to be alive” before being swept off by another round of breakneck percussion, but the message stays with the listener. There is an unutterable warmth to the vocals used that's impossible to shake, and perhaps most affecting of all are those of the closing track, Where Did We Go Wrong. For the first time in 49 minutes, the sound is allowed space to breathe, an ambient wash rising over record hiss and lost voices without a trace of a beat, and after such a relentless period of fascinating energy so stimulating you don't even know what to concentrate on, it's a sobering close indeed. But that's not to say the track is out of place. Indeed, the only feeling to expect after the highs and lows of such a startling pace is the fallout period, where indecision and contemplation must play a role in proceedings and it functions perfectly, a beautiful end to an amazingly consistent album in which every sound has its place and a superhuman level of control is displayed throughout.

Because there's so much constantly going on here, it's not the easiest of albums in which to dig deeper, but I could hardly recommend a more worthy candidate of your time this year. This is a wholly original vision that has been realised fluently and without flaw, and to put it simply, you just can't say that about a lot of albums.


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