Lead Review: Ben Cardew On Floorplan’s Victorious

On Robert Hood's latest outing as Floorplan, Ben Cardew finds the minimal techno luminary still unafraid to be difficult, but geared more heavily than ever toward a rewarding sense of out-and-out fun as well as funk

In modern music – and in particular the electronic kind – there is nothing more difficult to navigate than the line between not doing anything and not doing anything brilliantly. It’s what separates the masterly rolling minimalism of Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ from the soporific dullness of the track your mate knocked up on Ableton, or the worst bar room DJ set from a mind-mangling club excursion into noise.

Detroit producer Robert Hood (aka Floorplan) knows more about this particular divide than almost anyone. His 1994 EP Minimal Nation popularised the nascent minimal techno sound, a stripped-to-the-bone mix of drums, bass and synth squiggles that was a reaction to the sample-based approach of rave. No sound was wasted in Hood’s master plan, with every tick, splash and thump contributing to making his “funky grooves”.

It was a sound that, according to Hood, tried to balance the scientific with the spiritual. “Only what is essential to make people move,” as he once described his approach to Spannered. “I started to look at it as a science, the art of making people move their butts, speaking to their heart, mind and soul. It’s a heart-felt rhythmic techno sound.”

Hood’s minimal techno would prove massively influential and by the mid 2000s “minimal” was the hoariest of club clichés, worn into a nauseous K Hole of indifference by a legion of producers who brought the science but neglected the funk. By this point, though, Hood had moved on: his 2001 release ‘The Greatest Dancer’ sampled Sister Sledge, compacting the band’s wedding disco classic into tightly-sprung dance-floor dynamite, as soul, funk and disco – always influences on Hood’s work – started to show more overtly in his music.

Floorplan was key to this evolution. Hood debuted the new alias in 1996 but it came to prominence from 2010 onwards, thanks to underground hits like ‘Baby Baby’ and ‘Never Grow Old’. Broadly speaking, Floorplan sees Hood apply the minimal techniques he once employed on dusty drum machines to the disco and soul samples more commonly found in house, locating a sweet spot between the melodicism of house music and the tops-off energy of techno, the sweetness of disco meeting the dark arts of Detroit techno production and getting along famously.

Victorious, the second Floorplan album and first co-produced with Hood’s daughter Lyric, is a continuation of this plan, a master class in ratcheting up dance floor energy, where every sound is finely calibrated to make the listener move. The music within is innately, intensely rhythmical, each element chosen for its cadence rather than its note, the result akin to the filtered French house sound of the 90s fed up on protein shakes and sent out to join the Foreign Legion.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the music on Victorious, no jaw-dropping Aphex Twin-style production nous or head-spinning “what-on-earth-was-that?” Autechre experimentation. Instead, most tracks consist of little more than a couple of samples and a thunderous drum machine. But the family Hood excels in finding just the right sample for the occasion, then wringing out the funk like sweat from a stinky old towel, creating an Ironman-style intensity of build and release.

Take album opener ‘Spin’: it’s based around little more than a lightly distorted sample of a voice singing the song’s title, which loops and filters ad infinitum. But rather than letting the sample finish naturally, it is cut off just before the “n” finishes, a technique Hood returns to again and again to create an irresistibly nagging, unresolved tension. On ‘Spin’, this is undercut by thunderous bass drum, claps and hi hat, the track building relentlessly until a twinkling synth melody is released into the mix, taking the listener clean off into space.

Set against Victorious’ tightly-sprung background, almost anything can become a hook. On ‘Good Thang’, for example, the devoted chatter of a church service forms an unlikely earworm of a chorus, the inherent rhythm of their chat drawn out by its interaction with the musical base, like the play between cymbal, snare and bass drum in kit drumming.

The most obvious point of comparison for Victorious would be with Hood’s previous work as Floorplan or his older minimal techno releases. But whereas these could be somewhat austere at times, Victorious plays host to a gallery of laugh-out-loud elements of pure, stupid fun, something notably lacking from the aural panic attack of Minimal Nation’s ‘Unix’. ‘Mm Hm Hm’ features the kind of plastic keyboard stabs and nonsense rhyming that Technotronic and Ya Kid K once made their own, ‘Tell You No Lie’ is eight and a half minutes of lean, string-led disco joy, where not a second is wasted, while ‘Sun In the Sky’ plays merry hell with Todd Terry’s 1994 hit ‘Jumpin’’, stretching a hitherto unheard tension in the song’s musical make up to ridiculously entertaining levels.

The latter track may, in fact, be the key to the whole album. It’s a joyous musical riot, where the science of Hood’s minimal techniques meets the soul of Terry’s discofied original, stripped to the bone and boiling it down to make gravy. Listening to ‘Jumpin’’ after exploring ‘Sun In the Sky’, it sounds bloated, a vast over complication of a song that is begging for someone to unleash the minimal monster inside.

Not everything here works quite as well: ‘He Can Save You’ commits the cardinal sin of minimal music by succumbing to boredom, the vocal sample becoming less the engine to drive the song forward and more a muddy puddle that sticks to the listener’s boots, while ‘Ha Ya’ skirts a little too close to the kind of functional, me-too techno that sprung up in the wake of Minimal Nation.

But these missteps matter little on an album that proves a minimal tour de force, home to some of the most simply enjoyable music in Hood’s 20-plus-year production history. Victorious is intense, rewarding, draining at times, but always likely to put a spring in your step, the house equivalent of one of those ridiculous Tough Mudder courses, if they were filled with disco dancers rather than ne’er-do-wells straight out of business school.

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