“The situation in Detroit is making people uncomfortable but that’s a good thing if we look at it in the right perspective. It’s a shaking up and realisation of the condition that Detroit has been in for so long. As it was a long and slow process people became immune to what was happening, almost asleep at the wheel. This once progressive city is now half gone. To make a new future, Detroit needs to look deep within to be able to see a new vision and thrive once more. As long as there is a seed, there is hope.” Robert Hood.
Robert Hood’s music is introspective even at its most floor-pummelling, but it’s perhaps his irregular Nighttime World releases that have been an outlet for his deepest exploration. And as the melodic influence of the Detroit originators like Hood seems as strong as ever in underground techno, it’s apposite that this latest third volume, Motor, concentrates explicitly on the history of the city and its cars.
Motor is a response of sorts to Julien Temple’s 2010 BBC documentary “Requiem For Detroit?”, a rumination on the ravage wrought by the collapse of the US automotive industry on the city that most depended on it, and the small pockets of hope springing eternal. The album takes these strands and weaves from them a superlative story of positivity and redemption that stands comparison with the very best of a remarkably consistent producer. Definitely one of the cooler things a BBC documentary has inspired, at least since Andy C sampled Q.E.D.
Understanding this, Motor resolves into a succinct history of the rise and fall of a titan. So, in the Forties, the attraction of high-paying jobs in the booming “Arsenal of Democracy” meant a massive influx of labour from the poor South (opener “The Exodos”, swirling synths and lasers). Throughout the next three decades, the city (“Motor City”, a highlight: a throbbing, mechanistic 303, shot through with optimism) would offer the chance of better life for millions (er, “Better Life”: layered UR hyperjazz, building into a ridiculously positive sparkling piano loop).
The next few tracks represent the classy plateau of this swift rise to success. “The Wheel” is perhaps the most understated, with keyboard vamps and breathy vocalisms switching places in the mix over a subtle, clicking backing. “Black Technician” might refer to the middle-class factory workers whose kids became the godfathers and originators of techno; starting as one of the album’s most classically Detroit tracks, about halfway through a stuttering, martial beat kicks in and it ends up sounding almost Aphex-like. Then “Learning” draws more from electro as a bridge into the tougher second half of the album.
It’s tougher for a reason. Coining it for years had partially obscured any learning about the potential of innovation; at least, when building gas-guzzlers rather than making ground-breaking electronic music. W Edwards Deming had been dismissed in his home country, but his ideas were being enthusiastically embraced elsewhere in the world, and the ominous “Drive (The Age Of Automation)” brings this home, an excellent, pounding homage to “Sharevari”, all sleek futurism and polished edges. “Torque One” ratchets up the tension further, using a deeper shade of bleepy techno while the good times and the production lines started to stop rolling.
It would get far, far worse, as all those urbex photos make clear and as Motor reflects. The self-explanatory “Hate Transmissions” is darker, clanking take on acid with added screams, which could probably slot into the later hours of a Hood DJ set (though he might need to bosh it through those +16 modified decks). However, “Slow Motion Katrina” is a bit of an oddity belying its excellent title, a low slung hip hop tempo breakbeat with noodly bits that doesn’t work as well as everything else on the album. Perhaps it represents the moment when Detroit unquestionably reached its lowest ebb (i.e. the formation of Insane Clown Posse).
In the closing tracks, Hood would have us believe that a new city is emerging from the ruins. “Assembly” builds from a simple woodblock motif, adding more vocal snatches and samples of hammering and welding into something unclassifiable that you might call “industrial” if that didn’t mean something entirely different. Finally, “A Time To Rebuild” is surprisingly nuanced electronica, skipping along without ever sounding anywhere near as positive as the first half of the album, and without completing a satisfying narrative of full redemption.
But that narrative would be a fallacy, and maybe after all this album is simply asking us if Detroit will ever leave the long shadow of its powerhouse past. And of anyone I wouldn’t want to argue with Robert Hood’s take, as whatever the future of the motor industry, it’s the likes of Hood who always make it clear that the Detroit music scene is as unique and fantastic as ever.