Machinedrum: Human Energy (take 2)

Will EDM be destined to the disco burn pile? Probably, but, standing near the flames in 2025, you might take your copy of Human Energy, slip it into your pocket, and watch the rest burn.


Human Energy

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2016-09-30
UK Release Date: 2016-09-30

Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, returns with his first record in three years under this moniker. After conquering the world with Sepalcure, and making the best Machinedrum record of all time with Vapor City, Travis takes his project in a bit of a confusing direction. Rather than towards the experimental outskirts of IDM, he takes a step towards Walmart EDM, and the record is worse for the choice.

The record begins with “Lapis” which sounds like it was named after a legendary Pokémon. The song climbs for two minutes before ultimately disappearing into the clouds. It’s a common trick, so well worn because it works so well. The ethereal fizzing fades into “Morphogene” which reveals the main trick of the record: mixing glitch-hop, juke and a pinch of wonky with inspired vocal samples. “Angel Speak” is a standout banger, with its steady beat and informative narrator. “Etheric Body Temple” marches like something Skrillex would compose for Deadmau5’s funeral. “White Crown” sounds like the follow-up to Mirrored that Battles’ never gave us.

As many hot moments as there are, Human Energy brings with it everything that music lovers are sick of with EDM. Again, it’s a plain play, popular on the radio, as well as clubs around the world. What makes it work is Stewart's instincts and production techniques. The claps are crisp, the drums solid, the vocals perfectly placed in Stewart’s 360-degree production mind. Getting this record on a beautiful sound system would be well worth it. The synths are the main draw here. EDM and dubstep records way too often have a paint by numbers synth tone, or a straight out of the box color that is used. Stewart’s tones all sound fresh but familiar, the exact line to walk. As the record continues though, its tricks sound more and more derivative. By the time Jesse Boykins III’s vox kick in on “Celestial Levels” it feels like more of the same, and the feel is right on.

An additional weakness of the record is its timing. Making an EDM record this year is like going to the mall on Christmas Eve. The more the mainstream a track sounds here (most of the tracks with guests) the less it ultimately compels you. A track like “Spectrum Sequence” is infinitely more interesting than what it comes after, because it sounds exploratory, rather than place holding.

Super fans of Room(s) and Vapor City will find plenty to dislike here, if what they dug about Machinedrum was the footwork style of his mid-career work. It would have made more sense artistically to keep heading towards Burial, whereas, financially, he made the right choice. Swimming in the sea of EDM that we do, it's complicated to assess which works have value and on what basis we make those decisions. Is it a gut feeling? Is it the fullness of the dance floor? Whatever criteria you choose to decide if Human Energy is a good record, my guess is it will lead you to appreciating what you have here: a solid entry in a confused, overcrowded genre.

You might be asking, can something this mainstream be good? If you came to party, then yes, if you came to criticize, then maybe. Here’s why: time always renders mainstream records polarized. Rumors still sounds iconic and melodic, but Carole King sounds bland. Will EDM be destined to the disco burn pile? Probably, but, standing near the flames in 2025, you might take your copy of Human Energy, slip it into your pocket, and watch the rest burn.


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