Like a night drive through congested downtown streets, Machinedrum’s Vapor City (just one of Travis Stewart’s many electronic projects) breeds a kind of stifling intimacy. The Berlin based producer builds each track like so many municipal blocks, with the disembodied voices that populate them floating through the car in snatches as you pass. Every street is paved with unshakeable drum and bass hooks, but melancholy and discord huddle curbside, and it’s not enough to roll up the windows and lock the doors. Vapor City has a way of clinging on.
Part of its initial allure is the push and pull of urban rhythm. Each track bustles with the energy of crowded crosswalks, bizarre and erratic cadences amongst the throng catching your attention as they hurry past. 2-step garage rubs shoulders with crackling trap, and smatterings of dubstep and house pass at a brisk pace. This sense of immediacy is often at odds with the slow swirling of dissonant chords that echo through the traffic, one layered on top of the other until it all washes over you like a physical atmosphere. ‘Infinite Us’ epitomizes this kind of concrete soul, busily percussive underneath the steady swell of discordant piano. This sense of conflict gives every track room to experiment with both extremes of electronic music, so that it can fluctuate and explore each musical detail. All are differently constructed and sonically distinct (like different streets in a neighborhood), but when considered together they make Vapor City stretch on for miles.
Over such an expanse, vocal pedestrians lament, rant, beg and seduce, clamoring to be heard in the night air. Some samples fit meekly in with the foot traffic, adding an angular rhythm or melody to fill the space. Others, like the sublime ‘Baby Its You’, weave in and out to deliver soulful admonitions, settling easily amongst gusts of guitar and synth. Done right, this kind of interplay really fleshes out the dramatic weight of each clip, making them feel deliberate and organic. However, some voices grate; the vagrant doomsday ranting of ‘Eyesdontlie’ strikes too insistently and continues long after its welcome, tarnishing an otherwise darkly intriguing part of town. In the end, the most striking voices are the ones that say the least, or say it simply; neither adamant nor uncertain, but simply calling out for help.
Down to its steely bones, Vapor City exists only for the night, for the brief window in which it stirs to life. The day will break, and this microcosm of stoplights and sighs will again settle. What does it leave? Only the road in your mind, a slow crawl through the jungle of neon lights and glimpses of life.