, September 6th, 2013 06:05
Over the several years they've existed, Factory Floor have come to embody a certain attitude of resistance. Resistance to audiences and labels that would have happily gobbled up several full-lengths in the time it's taken them to release Factory Floor. Resistance to their peers; the trio have spoken in interviews of how moving operations to a warehouse in a knackered industrial estate in Seven Sisters offered an escape route from involvement in any sort of scene. Resistance, it's often seemed, to one another, with each member of the trio bringing a different vision to bear upon their collective activities, causing the resulting music to bristle with tension. Resistance to predictability: no two Factory Floor shows I've witnessed have felt anything like each other. And resistance, above all, to the conventions of any one musical style. Eluding attempts to pin them in place, they've instead spent the last few years free-floating in a wide open zone somewhere between noise, techno, post-punk and post-industrial, with each release and performance plotted to a slightly different set of map co-ordinates. Their varied collaborations and involvement in the art world - a residency at the ICA, shows at Tate Modern and frequent work with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, among others - seem to have been born of that essential fluidity, which has allowed the group's members to mould their work to suit all manner of different settings.
So, then, does not it seem counterintuitive, if not downright bizarre, that their self-titled debut album - a format typically used to summarise a band's activities to date - finds them playing it stylistically straighter and more accessible than ever before? Perhaps it does on the surface of things, but then again, it's another potent jab to people's expectations that they've emerged with a debut album that is, first and foremost, a dance record. Factory Floor is not a noise or a post-punk record (although as a band they remain firmly in both those camps), at least not in the manner that Nik Void, Gabe Gurnsey and Dominic Butler established on the Lying/A Wooden Box single. Nor does it quite occupy the death-disco overlap region of 'R E A L L O V E' and the brusque 12" versions of 2011's 'Two Different Ways'. Its crisp sound palette and the functional nature of most of its tracks certainly seem a neater fit for DFA than any of their former work - it consists primarily of extended dancefloor workouts, constructed from chestbusting drum machine kicks and cowbells with nary an obviously acoustic sound source in earshot, each one repetitive almost to the point of playing like a locked groove.
But listen closer and louder - titling the opening track 'Turn It Up' is no empty instruction - and there's a predatory, serrated edge that's absent in most of the house contemporaries you might otherwise file it alongside. In fact, it's one of the more sinister dance records I've heard in a while, precisely because everything you might expect to hear in a DFA club track is present and correct, but used in a way that feels harsher, starker and slightly sadistic. The volcanic eruptions of Void's guitar around Gurnsey and Butler's arpeggiated, darkly funky backline - such a defining aspect of their earlier work - are admittedly largely absent here, stripping away one particular characteristic we've come to associate with Factory Floor. While in the past they felt like all the unresolved tension in the trio's musical interactions reaching bursting point and hissing upward like steam from a hydrothermal vent, on Factory Floor the malice is instead distilled and allowed to simmer away beneath the surface throughout. Each element in the mix is shaped and carefully positioned to the nth degree, the better to reinforce its steel-clad impact, and they're all set within a backdrop of profound and eerie silence, a potent signal that we're entering unfamiliar territory for the band.
You might expect the woodblock ticks that open 'Turn It Up', for example, to possess some reverberant qualities, but instead they ring out sharply into echoless space then die almost immediately, each a brittle snap like springing a plastic ruler on the edge of a desk. It's an alienating and uncompromising opener despite its ostensible club-readiness, barely doing anything for its six minute length save clunking along stubbornly, each repeat iteration gouging at the nerves like an elastic band being tightened around your temples. Void's vocal utterances, meanwhile, are depth-charged and corroded to the extent that they're nearly unrecognisable. At the other end of the album, the volatile spittle funk of 'Work Out' and 'Breathe In', steely and austere in temperament yet sensual and mischievous, reminds me a little of Richard H. Kirk's techno forays post-Cabaret Voltaire, in particular his Sweet Exorcist collaborations with Richard Barratt.
The tracks in between significantly amplify the intensity, each pulsation sending chemical blood throbbing around a sugary pop heart. 'Here Again' displays more pop suss than anything the trio have released since 'Lying', but stays taut, wiry and graceful, doling out energy in small doses rather than gifting its audience anything as gauche as an obvious drop. 'Fall Back's heartbeat kick and unfathomably catchy two-note splatter of a melody line are streamlined slightly from the single version released earlier this year. The murderous 'How You Say', which has been a key presence in the trio's sets for what feels like forever, is even more of an earworm, despite its central motif consisting of nothing but a single note tapped out in Morse code dot-dash. It's the album's highlight, spitting out gobbets of bright green acid as it grinds along at sustained climax, and also serves to emphasise the disconnect between Factory Floor on record and onstage. In the live arena Void's chants, drenched in reverb, whip up into storm clouds of feedback; here they're violently cut short every time they threaten to escape the grid, snapping abruptly off to chilling effect.
And herein lies what makes Factory Floor so continually intriguing as a group. If some of the sonic elements of Factory Floor might attract accusations from some quarters of seeming a bit retro - its arsenal of vintage-sounding drum machine clunks and chirps, a certain sonic kinship with earlier incarnations of DFA - the context surrounding it reveals it to be anything but. Rather than being definitive and fixed in stone, these recorded versions present only one single possible endpoint for each song. With reactive and semi-improvised performance so central to what Factory Floor do, each composition comes loaded with the potential to completely change shape in the live arena - to be extended or shortened, to be strafed with lashings of feedback or reined in to little but a delirious, strobing dialogue between sequencer and synth. In a broader sense, this links them into the growing trend of hardware-based live performance in club music that's become prevalent in recent years. In the same way that many house and techno artists dabbling in live improvisation on the dancefloor might not strictly be breaking new genre ground, what's more important is that the approach itself fosters an exciting feeling of freedom. Equally, the precarious nature of improvisation in the club, leagues from the locked-in pulse of pre-programmed sets, is utterly thrilling as a dancer, leaving open the terrifying (tantalising?) possibility that things might bend entirely out of shape at any moment.
Indeed, with the energy of a crowd and each other to bounce off, on a good night Factory Floor are one of the most startling live bands around, capable of stretching these base grooves out to what feels like near-infinity. Theirs is a physically and mentally overwhelming (and exhausting) form of full body sonic experience that's equally akin to the psychedelic techno battery of Jeff Mills and the blissed-out sensations of swimming through MBV's arcs of feedback. With its airless surrounds and restrained feel, however, Factory Floor clearly doesn't sound quite like they do onstage. If there's one proviso to be made about the album, it's that the gradual honing process - the stripping away of their sound to bare bones and sinew - has perhaps taken away with it some of the urgency, abandon and spontaneity that's marked out much of their live work. That said, the trio have remarked in interviews that there seemed no point in trying to replicate their live sound on record, reliant as it is on unpredictable external factors. What Factory Floor presents, then, is simply one perspective on a project that exists in a perpetual process of flux.
So to title this joyous yet unsettling album Factory Floor, a name that suggests a definitive document, is perhaps a bit misleading. A better name might perhaps have been One, or something similar to imply, as the music does, that it offers listeners the first in a (hopefully ongoing) series of studio missives charting the evolution of this most difficult to place of groups. (For an idea of what I'm envisaging, check out the work of the Entr'acte label, whose standardised, numbered artwork for each release beautifully embodies the music it contains - each one a newly issued bit of electronic experimentation, fresh off the, ahem, factory floor.) The past 18 months has seen a fairly prolific flush of activity from a group often stereotyped as working at glacial pace: this LP and the 'Fall Back' single, live electronics sessions from Butler and Gurnsey, Void's solo performances, the marvelous Carter Tutti Void album and live collaborations at the ICA with Hannah Sawtell, Simon Fisher Turner and Peter Gordon (the latter of which was recently released via Optimo, and contained some great, freaky mutant disco). If their by now well-established patterns of resistance enable them to continue this current run of form - and if even some of the results of their live and studio explorations find their way onto record - it won't matter a great deal if it takes another three-odd years for Two to take shape.