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White Noise: Machinedrum – SXLND

Friday, 20 January 2012

Machinedrum – SXLND

Label: Lucky Me


Van Vogue


Travis Stewart had a 2011 that anyone would envy. As well as performing a series of brilliant DJ sets with his unique bassy-footwork style, he put out a series of top releases with Braille as Sepalcure, and even managed to squeeze in producing what was unanimously one of last year’s greatest albums, Room(s), which was in White Noise’s top 5 albums of the year. After all this, no one was more excited than me to receive his new EP for on-point Glasgow label Lucky Me, and on the basis of SXLND’s great quality tunes, it’s clear that 2011 wasn’t a fluke for Stewart; he’s here to stay.

Given the utter brilliance of his last LP, it’s not really a surprise that SXLND is great. What is a surprise is just how different these tunes feel, with open space replacing Room(s)’ busy compositions and a straight-cut Dance focus contrasting with the heady tunes on the album. Don’t get me wrong, these are still dense, sophisticated productions, but here the elements never feel in danger of eclipsing each other. The brief, beatless opener Take Good Care could in a way be seen as a bridge between the two styles, with a deeply textured ambient soundfield setting the scene for lost vocal snatches and an all-consuming synth roar. The title track which follows could hardly sound more different. SXLND (which forms the backing track for Azealia Banks’ latest single) fields a crystal-clear melodic vocal line that worms its way into your brain within seconds, twinned with sharp, gratifying kicks. Although he still uses Kimbie-esque tiny samples to populate his sound, the song sets the clear and airy tone for the whole EP, where every sound is given space to breathe and be enjoyed to its full extent. But always a restless producer, Stewart doesn’t just leave it there for the excellent title track, with its bitty groove breaking down as the vocal line is dramatically distended over atmospheric beats to great effect.

It’s a very strong start, and not for a second does the quality let up across the rest of the release. No Respect builds slowly to a lilting stomper, with the introduction of a deep bass growl grounding a staccato synth crash overlain with percussive footwork clicks and iridescent synthwork. It’s the busiest track here, but none the worse for it. Stewart cannily keeps the two standout tunes for the end here, starting with penultimate track Van Vogue which has been floating around in mixes since the summer. It begins as a sparse affair with flitting synths and quick vocal snatches; a one-word sample, a dog barking and what sounds like a whistle. Before long the synths come in louder, each clipped vocal punctuating the sound at the perfect time, before the track drops into a deep rattling sub-bass and a more extended vocal line, twinned with those same synths to create absolute perfection. Final cut DDD also sounds quite familiar from earlier in the year, with a simple synth progression ruling over snipped vocals and sharp beats. It’s the best example (along with the title track) of how much space Stewart’s allowing these new compositions, and it shows how, when their elements are stripped down and laid bare, he still sounds absolutely fantastic.

SXLND marks a real landmark for Stewart, because it’s often forgotten that however difficult it is to create a sublime album, it’s also pretty challenging to follow that up: to retain a high quality, a sense of your own unique sound, and conflictingly show that you’re looking in new directions for new sounds. Here each of these boxes is more than ticked, and I’d recommend SXLND to anyone from the most detail-focused home listeners to the DJs who will get a great set of dance tunes that’ll fit perfectly into more mixes than you can shake a stick at.

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