It's always a relief when an album comes packaged with a concept, but the strength of the music allows us to immediately set it aside. Machinedrum's follow-up to 2011's universally lauded Room(s) purports to map the different districts of a megalopolis the Berlin-based producer encountered in his dreams. Granted, this isn't something that one would ever get from listening to the album itself; nevertheless, it's a sleek and unified collection of tracks that finds Machinedrum hitting his stride by bearing down on what he does best: writing tunes that yoke the frenetic drum energy of footwork to airy, drawn-out melodies. If the LP is indeed the soundtrack to the city of the title, there are a lot of broken hearts in Vapor City.
Machinedrum has toyed with concepts to great effect before. His JETS project with Jimmy Edgar covered a dizzying amount of stylistic terrain, and the pair's FACT mix exploited that playfulness by presenting itself as a polyglot pirate-radio transmission. Vapor City doesn't sport the same cracks or restlessness. It zones in on the tipping point that drum & bass found many years ago, where the physical intensity of the music gave way to more traditionally musical concerns. Travis Stewart hasn't gone full LTJ Bukem yet, though. The rhythmic inventiveness of the slouching and slapping "Don't 1 2 Lose U" finds an easy, vibrant balance between the thrust of its warm bass currents on the one hand and its pooling synth pads and sadly chirping flutes on the other. It's a very effective means of keeping the album's momentum up, even while it continually crosses emotionally fraught terrain. When that cumulative tension dies down on the closest thing we've heard to a ballad from Machinedrum, "U Still Lie," it's particularly satisfying to wallow in those vibes.
On "Center Your Love," Machinedrum goes in like Synkro with chromatic strums of nylon-stringed guitar over a blocky beat and an out-of-context, processed vocal phrase, but neon synths bleed in from the edges. Dazed touches like this keep Vapor City from leaning too heavily on sentiment for its emotional impact. Every "musical" signifier thrown into the mix allows Stewart to take chances elsewhere, evoking the obvious and quickly dodging the consequences. Two years after Rooms(s), the musical world has caught up to the influences which made that album a unique amalgam; it's now commonplace for artists to employ beats that seem much busier than they really are and the ghostly afterimage of R&B. It's easy to imagine a guy in a five-panel cap performing Room(s)-esque music with exaggerated, b-boy flourishes on his MIDI controller, but it's now hard to mistake that style of production as something other than a really intentional labor, or even an act of outright mimicry. Perhaps that's why Vapor City is so successful; it's a different, and more unique effort. Moreover, the LP doesn't look outside of itself to the same extent that its predecessor did. Maybe it's in this way that the album is like a city—it's self-sustaining and bounded, even if these are only convenient fictions for its inhabitants.