13/03/2020 This week I have been mostly listening to

Machinedrum – Vapor city (2013). I have a tendency, when it comes to albums that I have every reason to believe I’ll enjoy, to put off actually listening to them for as long as possible. In some cases actually for years and years. I did it with Tomorrow’s Harvest, I even put off listening to Syro for perhaps several months after it came out.

So it was with Machinedrum and Vapor City. Urban Biology is no doubt a classic (as much as an album of quite niche electronic music can be a classic) of dreamy sample-laden glitch-hop electronica (BoC meets Prefuse 73). And it’s been a solid 4-star album I’ve enjoyed intermittently but regularly for nearly 10 years. I’ve never played it repeatedly but gradually become familiar with it over the years; on nearly every listen it absorbs and entertains me, revealing new facets each time. I remember reading a lot of positive noise about Vapor City, years back, but only ever listened to the opening track Gunshotta – which appropriately is a banger. 

So by putting off listening to more Machinedrum, maybe my subconscious is exercising some delayed gratification – it knows I’m going to enjoy this album, and so saves it to enjoy later. But nevermind self-analysis, what of the music? Well, it’s great. Vapor City feels like a collage composed of a selection of contemporary urban electronic genres, each prefixed with ‘post’ or ‘future’ and deftly re-arranged into a dreamy, euphoric, danceable melange. Future garage/post dubstep/future jungle/post footwork, etc.

Machinedrum is a master of slowfast music (I term I made up in my head while walking around listening to this album) – you can either bob your head languidly or go double-tempo and bust out some fancy footwork. I’ve neglected contemporary electronic music for much of the last decade, so I may not be best placed to make this observation, but this really feels like an album that encapsulates the 2010s, a decade in which the boundaries separating different scenes and genres have truly broken down. So on Vapor City we have the mixing and blending of tempos and rhythms: dubstep is tweaked up into jungle, which then becomes footwork, then garage, etc, all united by the kind of samples which are part of the very fabric of dance music, woven as they are into its DNA. Time will tell (for me anyway, the album has been out 7 years already) whether Vapor City is an album that keeps on giving, or if its restless genre-hopping leaves it lacking any deeper substance.

Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart. That’s what he looks like apparently

Black Dog – Radio Scarecrow (2008). I’m going to have to dedicate some more time to exploring The Black Dog, both post Ed and Andy exiting to form Plaid, and the early years. Further Vexations is among my favourite electronic albums (top 20 maybe?) and though I haven’t spent quite as much time with Radio Scarecrow, I think it’s probably easily as good. The tracks all segue into one another so the album flows as a whole – sometimes this works; sometimes I feel like it prevents me from listening if I know I can’t do the whole album in one go. If you have time, it’s worth listening to the whole thing, which segues from ambient to melodic electro, techno, minimal then dubstep, then ending with gentle strings and piano. The whole journey (cliche, but it is a journey – Train by the Autobahn perfectly evoking the feeling of arriving at a train station at dawn), steered by two skilled producers is seamless from start to finish.

Jon Hopkins – Immunity (2013). Jon Hopkins seems to be one of the most well-regarded and acclaimed electronic producers of the last 10+ years, but I’ve never taken the time to find out why for myself. (No doubt partly due to my contrarian tendency to avoid anything I feel is overly popular or has some kind of crossover appeal). I’ve listened to this album a couple of times….and I don’t really get what the fuss is about. It’s not a poor album by any stretch, and I’ll definitely come back to it…but it seems as though some people rank it as one of the best electronic albums of the decade – and I just don’t feel like it’s particularly groundbreaking. If I were a cynical music snob I would say it reminds me of electronic music which appeals to people who don’t normally like electronic music – but I’m not, so I won’t.

I seem to remember electronic music went through a certain style around 2010, artists like Nathan Fake and James Holden producing electronica that was glitchy and crackly but with clearly defined melodic pay-off. There was reams and reams of minimal techno in a similar vein around the time – Stephan Bodzin springs to mind – and Immunity just reminds me of that kind of that style – trying to sound edgy but emotive enough to be accessible. I don’t dislike it, but I wouldn’t mistake it for particularly groundbreaking.

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