Travis Stewart is a man of many outlets for his ever-present ideas. He’s one half of electronic IDM duos Sepalcure, JETS and Dream Continuum as well as an accomplished producer himself under the name Machinedrum. The Berlin-via-North Carolina (how many times can you say that?) man has now made his first album for Ninja Tune, Vapor City. Like many of Stewart’s releases, both solo and as part of a group, it works to an extent: this is a smartly put-together release, albeit one that sometimes seems a little too impressed with its own subtleties.
Vapor City starts strongly with perhaps the best track on the album, Gunshotta. A standout track not only within Vapor City but among all electronic music released this year, Gunshotta recalls the best of Sepalcure: a soulful vocal sample is combined with an assault of hi hats and, eventually, a dancehall ragga to create a track that builds but never explodes. Essentially, Gunshotta coasts to the top, and even when its beat does drop, you haven’t really noticed because of Stewart’s incredible ability to combine disparate, frantic elements into a beautiful, trancelike state.
Even prettier are the opening piano notes of Infinite Us; once you hear the snare and drum machine beats subtly introduce themselves, you can’t wait to hear where the song will go. Similar to Gunshotta, the track ascends over its seven minute length rather than shooting straight up, as various elements are added to the mix, from an auto-tuned female vocal sample to guitar. As Infinite Us gets faster and faster , Stewart stays in control and remains the master of all of his puppets; with the arpeggiated harp-like guitars of the song, Stewart does his best Flying Lotus impersonation.
The next two tracks are perhaps the sexiest. Most fun is the hip hop beat of Don’t 1 2 Lose U, which is the closest Vapor City comes to clubworthy, as the song’s title is repeated with yet another soulful vocal sample over effects-laden drums. Stewart’s use of R&B samples would be tiring but for the fact that he does it so well. Elsewhere, Center Your Love is essentially Boards Of Canada-like guitars and pianos with a poppy vocal sample; it almost sounds like Cults’ Madeline Follin decided to sing over a warped version of Dayvan Cowboy. After four songs, Vapor City has staked its claim as one of this year’s best electronic releases.
But then it becomes a bit conceited, as the ambient Vizion introduces the album’s quieter, less aggressive latter half. It’s almost as if Stewart was trying to compensate for the forwardness of Vapor City’s first half; yet, it was a perfect balance between active and restrained. Vizion is fine in and of itself, but ambient music isn’t necessarily Stewart’s strong suit, and everything else that follows bumps Vapor City down in terms of overall quality and listening experience. While Stewart pushes himself as a producer on Vapor City’s second half, listening to it makes you think he should stick to what he does best. The synthy, ambient U Still Lie is Johnny Jewel-lite; even Neon Indian’s Era Extraña deep cuts are more interesting than the slow U Still Lie. Meanwhile, the footwork of Eyesdontlie really just makes you want to listen to the Chicago legends who have been producing that type of music for way longer than Stewart.
In sum, the first four songs of Vapor City are exemplary of Stewart’s ability to retain his best skills as a producer while splicing in new effects here and there. If only that innovation had held up for the rest of the record.