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Machinedrum – Room(s) review

Travis Stewart has been producing under the Machinedrum moniker for more than 10 years; in that time his sound has gone from IDM through hip-hop and ghetto house, but on Room(s) he takes the blueprint of the subgenre of 150BPM Chicago house known as juke (which has been an underground phenomenon for the past 10 years) and runs with it. Stewart certainly isn’t the only producer doing this; there are currently a number of second wave adopters of the sound, chief among them Chrissy Murderbot and Addison Groove. But where these producers take this sound and offer more literal recreations of it, with mechanical 808 patterns, stripped back production and ghetto vocal samples, Stewart takes the backbone of juke, and combines it with multitude of other contemporary influences and creates his most accomplished work as an artist to date.

Despite the album’s 150BPM plus pace (which is never anything less than a complete adrenaline rush, even during it’s more sedate moments), fatigue never sets in. This is primarily down to Stewart’s rhythm programming. While juke would typically utilise untreated drum machines, Stewart isn’t afraid to use organic drum samples. “Come1” for example contrasts euphoric piano chords with a freeform jazz rhythm; he gives the track just enough syncopation to give everything enough room to breathe, similarly, on “Lay Me Down” he employs clattering percussion and reverb in a similar fashion to Burial. Stewart also splashes an impressive palette of colour and texture across the album’s whole. His grasp of melodic balance is exceptional; any chords he employs in the tracks add just the right amount of emotional pull without negating their ferocity. On album opener “She Died There” gut wrenching strings echo from the gloom whilst a hopping breakbeat skips on top, on “Youniverse” an organ tone brings warmth while a relentless conga beat drives the whole thing forward, and even when he uses nastier synthetic elements such as the techno stabs on “Now U Know The Deal 4 Real”, they’re always given the right amount of melodic contrast.

His use of samples is what sticks out most. Although there is a liberal amount of pitch bending going on, Stewart always manages to keep it sounding fresh. “Sacred Frequency” for example combines neon melodies with a sample that cries out from beneath, creating an unseen darkness that adds incredible depth. Additionally, juke is notable for the overtly sexual nature of its lyrics and samples; Stewart avoids this. The vocal samples are both irresistible hooks and textural elements at once, under constant manipulation, and taking on a life of their own. The vocal on “The Statue” creates a dusty soul track with restless sense of urgency, while album closer “Where Did We Go Wrong” is the most sublime example, trailing the pitched down vocal off into infinity over a beatless soundscape reminiscent of Boards of Canada. It’s a rare moment of calm in an album that is, more than anything, an exhilarating joy to listen to.

Scott Wilson