It’s kind of odd that Machinedrum would title his latest album Vapor City in 2013, the same year that the squirmy internet phenomenon that is vaporwave was nominated for an MTV O Award (alas, it was beat out by its flashier, Rihanna-approved cousin “seapunk” [which is, for the record, an even more indefinable genre than vaporwave, which has actually inspired a pretty considerable body of theoretical fodder at TMT and elsewhere]). It’s odd because Machinedrum is a sonic perfectionist. He’s the kind of global bass-savvy producer who jumps from subgenre to subgenre, local scene to local scene in the span of songs and makes it sound polished, which is precisely the opposite gesture of vaporwave, whose core tenant is to start with the most homogenous source material possible and then warp it, through a series of contextual jokes, inversions, and fuckarounds into a sound that is, at its best, a wry devil’s advocate and at its worst a .zip file of half-baked, “ironic” muzak-funk masturbation.
Machinedrum is not playing devil’s advocate on Vapor City; that’s never been his style. The North Carolina-born, Berlin-residing Travis Stewart, alias Machinedrum, has made it something of a trademark throughout his short but prolific career to salvage the slickest glitch phrases and deepest sub frequencies from across IDM (a loathsome acronym if there ever was one) styles like juke, jungle, deep house, and techno, fusing them into his own elegant, high-brow hybrid. Machinedrum is music-as-design-object, a flush aesthetic both its currency and its end product.
2011’s Room(s), released on UK electronic trendsetter Planet Mu, set the standard for this style of roomy, vocal-driven dance music, plush with enough reverb to drown an elephant on Molly and punctuated by the hyperactive whir of the growing phenomenon that was to be footwork. In 2013, footwork is not only par for the international DJ course, but it’s also found a transatlantic kindred spirit in jungle and drum & bass, sometimes to very stunning results. Vapor City begins on this very same stylistic train of thought; album opener “Gunshotta” pairs a restrained, inverted jungle pattern with a Burial-informed melancholic vocal sample, all topped off by the intermittent enunciation of a dry, juke-y click. Midway through the track, a ragga vocal cloaked in reverb and filters replaces the melodic vocal and a grimy mid-range whir rounds out the composition. Point being, there are plenty of ideas happening here, insofar as there are rhythmic gestures and generic hallmarks combined in a discerning, intelligent format, but they’re basically all the same idea, and it’s not a very fresh one.
The rest of Vapor City rehashes this formula, sometimes over the course of sprawling, seven-plus-minute tracks, and this is why it bores the shit out of me. Yes, it’s very tasteful, pleasant, culturally-savvy dance music, flashing melodies that you might even call “beautiful” at times, and the production quality is reliably spotless. But in a sonic context as splintered, as debased, and as all-around captivating as the one we’ve got in 2013, why should we pay attention to such a middling sound? I’m guessing that Stewart didn’t title Vapor City with any conscious nod to vaporwave in mind, but perhaps the linguistic congeniality serves to underscore what dance music can become when it lacks a beating heart and a properly moved soul — an Adidas-sporting, high-definition descendant of the same blasé boardroom jams that vaporwave’s progenitors seized upon to render a perfectly (dis)impassioned hallucination of art in the 21st century.
When it’s watered down by this much sneakerhead aestheticism, it becomes hard to even hear the culture-shaking subversion that lurked in the sounds of Machinedrum’s influences. On Vapor City and elsewhere in dance music’s loftier quarters, what was a dangerous, urgent typhoon of sound integrates placidly into the fabric of normalcy, dissipates into the air, and proceeds to move between us, unseen, burying the communicative shout of the artist in a sea of overwhelming, albeit nicely-tailored, static.