The first time I heard Machinedrum, AKA Travis Stewart, was in 2013 when he was part of All City Records Views of Saturn series. Each 12” featured an artist either covering or remixing Sun Ra. Stewart’s take on ‘Door of the Cosmos’ was somewhere between the two. It was filled with the joyful noise that Ra’s original music has, but there was a terse electronic sensibility to it that made you take notice, and more importantly, check out what else this guy has done.
Two years previously Stewart had released ‘Room(s)’. It was the kind of album that laid down a lot of what was to follow but we didn’t know that at the time. After that he released the incendiary ‘Vapor City’. The album was based around a recurring dream Stewart had of a city. Each track was a different district and not since Vangelis’ overlook 1990 album ‘The City’ did a piece of music feel like a living and breathing metropolis. This was followed up ‘Vapor City Archives’, more of the same, and in 2016 ‘Human Energy’.
Now four years later, Stewart has returned with his most accomplished, and immediate album to date ‘A View of U’.
What separates ‘A View of U’ apart from his previous albums is that every song is a standalone event. Instead of having them loosely linked by either a theme, or sound, they are all their own thing. What makes this more satisfying is how cohesive it all feels. While there is no narrative that links them all together, there is a delicious flow to the album that makes you want to press forward with it to see what will happen next.
The first big track on the album is ‘Kane Train’ which features Freddie Gibbs and possess all the trunk-rattling swagger you’d expect. There is nothing wrong with the opening tracks, but they feel too safe. Too pristine. There doesn’t feel like a lot of risk. It’s like listening to Flying Lotus. It sounds great but isn’t that exciting. I’m not saying that Stewart is going though the motions, but there isn’t much going on that draws me into their musical worlds. All this changes when ‘Kane Train’ starts.
Massive horns welcome us with open arms. Stuttering beats and Gibbs devilish rhymes make you sit up and pay attention. In all fairness, if this was an instrumental, I would have been made up, through Gibbs on there and it’s a whole different level. ‘Wait 4 U’ features Jesse Boykins III. On one hand it is a more laidback affair, but in the other it really isn’t. This is the fastest track on the album so far. The beat feels like a golden age drum ‘n bass monster that has been remodelled for 2020.
The drum ‘n bass vibes continue on ‘1000 Miles’ featuring vanguards of the scene Sub Focus. The standout track is ‘Sleepy Pietro’ featuring Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. The piano feels wonky, off kilter but totally vibrant. The music lurches beneath it, but at no moment does this feel like coffee table drum ‘n bass. That is down to the hesitating beats and devastating sub wobbles that appear enough to make you smile but not enough that you can predict their appearances.
It’s the song made someone who fundamentally understands what they are doing. The way Stewart allows Hamasyan the room to shine, instead of hogging the glory for himself, is as great as the music itself.
Throughout ‘A View of U’ Stewart sets himself up as a musical polyglot. You can tell that he is clearly passionate about the music he makes and understands the codes and conventions of the genres he creates. The downside with the album is there are too many collaborations. Out of the 11 tracks eight feature nine guest artists. While the music works it does all feel a bit congested. Given the strength of the music it would have been nice to hear Stewart come for the fore a bit more.
However, this feels like a petty grip given the quality of the music on display. Stewart has released the album he has always hinted at, which is both obvious and audacious. ‘A View Of U’ lives up to its name. It gives us the most complete view of Stewart to date. As the music on display he is a complex character who can easily make bombastic bangers as something reflective.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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