On his third album for Ninja Tune, Machinedrum (Travis Stewart) makes a significant leap toward pop-minded production while sharpening his futuristic hybrid club sound. His previous three full-lengths, starting with his influential 2011 Planet Mu release Room(s) and continuing with both Vapor City albums for Ninja Tune, successfully fused spacious synth pads, jungle breakbeats, R&B and dancehall vocal samples, and the franticness of Chicago's juke/footwork scene. While all of those influences come into play on Human Energy, the beats aren't quite as heavy by volume, and the synths aren't nearly as vast and spacious. Instead, everything sounds much tighter and shinier. The album features more guest vocalists than any of Machinedrum's previous releases, and the vocals are just as tweaked and processed as the rest of the sounds that make up the compositions, functioning as additional instruments as well as pop hooks. Compared to Folding Time, the second album by Sepalcure (Stewart's duo with Praveen Sharma) that was released earlier in 2016, Stewart manipulates the vocals a lot more on Human Energy, rather than let them breathe as on Folding Time cuts like "Devil Inside." The tempos are generally higher, and there isn't much resembling U.K. garage or dubstep here, as there was on the Sepalcure album. Instead, the beats are generally fast and intricately arranged, although there's often a half-time trap bounce to them. The busy tempos and neon synths constantly seem to be building up to a euphoric climax, but they never truly explode into a predictable "drop," instead continuing to evolve and develop in search of another peak. "Do It 4 U" features R&B singer Dawn Richard, fresh off her acclaimed 2015 full-length, Blackheart, and singles on forward-thinking electronic labels Fade to Mind and Local Action. Her punchy vocals are guided by subtle drum'n'bass breaks and they contribute greatly to the song's energy, but it stops just before it sounds like it's about to burst into warp speed. "Celestial Levels" (with Jesse Boykins III) is a much slower R&B number, but the synth melodies and plucked acoustic guitars are much busier, without sounding overdriven. "Spectrum Sequence" matches the names of colors with different electronic tones and patterns, transforming into an audio pinwheel. It's pretty nerdy and showy, but it's also incredibly fun and grin-inducing. "White Crown" throws in knotty prog-metal riffs from Animals as Leaders guitarist Tosin Abasi, and it essentially sounds like a dream collaboration between Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Rustie or Hudson Mohawke. Stewart gets a bit more meditative on less beat-centric tracks like "Ocean of Thought" and "Opalescent," but even these seem charged with ecstatic spirits. The album ends suddenly with the hyperkinetic robotic chirp of "Colour Communicator," which could've been released by PC Music. Human Energy is an exhilarating showcase for Stewart's continually mutating vision of abstract pop.
AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson