Some say dance music lacks heart. This compilation might be among the best responses to that claim.
In Vitro collects Stewart's tracks from 2002 through 2014, outlining the full scope of his work through the years, from thumping dance floor cuts to wounded downtempo. By presenting these tracks outside their original context, the compilation focuses on the emotional qualities that lay the foundation for Stewart's catalogue: remorse, joy, despair, ennui, anger, contentment. In Vitro tells the tale of a techno producer whose graceful rhythms and svelte melodies tug your feelings in all sorts of directions as they invite you to dance.
The Claro Intelecto discography is split into two eras. The first phase consisted of cavernous dub techno and tender electro for Modern Love. The second follows his switch to Delsin, where his music became darker and grittier, influenced by the ultra-slow "knackered house" of fellow Mancunian and kindred spirit Andy Stott. In Vitro, crucially, is presented non-chronologically. So the lightfooted "Peace Of Mind" is followed by the slow, limping gait of "Second Blood," the first track Stewart released on Delsin and in many ways the opposite of that 2003 classic. The rest of In Vitro explores everything in between.
While a two-disc compilation could never encompass a discography as vast as Stewart's—fans will ask, "Where is 'New Life?' 'Instinct?' Rise?'"—it does an admirable job of pulling together essential tracks. The astounding "When The Time Is Right," from a 2008 12-inch, is tranquil dub techno in the early Claro Intelecto tradition. "It's Getting Late" is Stewart at his most delicate. The track sounds like the drowsy state that follows the afterhours, as you fall asleep with the night's kick drums and pads reverberating in your head. There are compilation-only rarities, like "Heart (Warehouse Mix)," which inflates his Detroit-influenced melodies to a colossal scale, or "Two Thousand," an uncharacteristically dirty electro track from 2002 that predicts the bellicose bass and wonky beats of his latter-day Delsin work.
There are also some Claro Intelecto tracks here that, for whatever reason, just don't get as much shine as the others. Take "Chicago," originally released on Ai Records in 2004. A swung jam with a keyboard motif whose housey shuffle looks to the Windy City, "Chicago" might be an outlier in his catalogue, but it's one of In Vitro's revelations. As you listen through the two-part compilation, jumping from one decade to the next and back again, what underpins everything is Stewart's hummable melodies, at once uplifting and melancholy, whether we're talking the stonking thump of "Remember" or the bouncy shuffle of "Signifier." Some writers have focused on the dichotomy between his massive bangers and his more introspective moments, but In Vitro suggests that they aren't so different after all.
It's hard to pick a favourite on In Vitro, but mine might be "Still Here," a track with weepy strings and a swaddled kick drum that sounds like a heartbeat pumping through amniotic fluid. Yet something holds it back, a certain restraint that runs through all of Stewart's work. "Still Here" is among his most memorable tracks, the obvious highlight of his 2012 album Reform Club, where he broke from his dub techno past to make the kind of staggered, emotionally weighty music that has followed him right up to last year's EP Forgotten Wasteland. Stewart's approach to dance music has never gone out of style.
Mon / 13 Jan 2020
01. Peace Of Mind (Electrosoul)
02. Second Blood
03. It's Getting Late
04. When The Time Is Right
05. Two Thousand
06. Heart (Warehouse Mix)
07. Beautiful Death
10. You Not Me
08. Still Here
11. Great Day