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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Amon Tobin: Foley Room


1) Bloodstone; 2) Esther's; 3) Keep Your Distance; 4) The Killer's Vanilla; 5) Kitchen Sink; 6) Horsefish; 7) Foley Room; 8) Big Furry Head; 9) Ever Falling; 10) Always; 11) Straight Psyche; 12) At The End Of The Day.

And now for something not completely, but significantly different. Dispensing with the practice of sampling old vinyl (and not a moment too soon), Tobin shifts his attention to «field recor­dings». While Foley Room is by no means revolutionary in that regard — electronic artists had been venturing into the streets to capture live sounds of lively life for quite a long time — it may be the first, or among the first, albums to make a religion out of the principle. Just about every track includes «real-life» sound samples, used either for the rhythmic basis itself or as special ef­fects-«flourishes» (sometimes as both).

Includes, yes, but is not confined to them. I have seen some complaints as to how, with Foley Room, Tobin crossed over into the world of the avantagarde and all but betrayed his original pur­pose of existence. This is not really just. Even at this stage of his career, Tobin is not strictly an «avantgarde» music maker, because Foley Room does not exactly rebel against the commonly observed principles of melody and harmony; at the very least, not against those principles that the guy used to follow on his earlier records.

After all, in a symbolic gesture, the very first track here does not sample motorbikes or kitchen sinks: it samples the Kronos Quartet, whom Tobin actually recorded live in his «foley room». I understand that «commonly observed principles of melody and harmony» are expected to go to hell when we deal with someone as reckless as the Kronos Quartet, but, in actuality, 'Bloodstone' is a fairly normal composition: a little ominous, a little terrifying, with all of its Schnittke influen­ces firmly in place, but completely accessible.

The same goes for most of the other tracks. Naturally, there are no «memorable melodies»: the ef­fect is purely atmospheric. And that effect, more often than not, is rather dry. The patterns that Tobin constructs in between his field recordings and the overlays of percussion and synthesizers have more to do with complex mathematics than intuitive spirit work. But we would be fooling ourselves if we started to argue about how A.T. used to be such an overwhelming spiritual mes­siah of the electronic world in the past, and how he has so unpleasantly shifted to soulless experi­mental textures — like, «jungle-jazz» is so cathartic, and «jungle-kitchen sink» is so technical. It really does not work that way.

Because the overall effect of Foley Room is not that far removed from the effect of Tobin's pre­vious efforts. This is still the same old dark, otherworldly music, coming from some post-apoca­lyptic world in which green grass has been completely replaced by robo-factories and wannabe Darth Va­ders stand in lines for the soup kitchen. This world has its brighter spots (e. g. on 'Horse­fish', constructed along a pretty harp melody played by Sarah Page; 'Always', the «poppiest» track on here, including several disjointed guitar parts drawn from folk-rock, post-punk, and what-not, along with psychedelic female vocals), but, as it always goes, they are in a minority, merely offering brief respite from the harshness of this brand of virtual life.

It is just that this harshness, when all the field recordings are thrown in, becomes overtly «experi­mental». 'Big Furry Head', for instance, sounds very similar to some of his earlier «sickening shuffles», but, instead of going «wow, this is really heavy, makes my stomach churn», the lis­te­ner is supposed to go «wow, he stuck the sounds of a roaring tiger on here, how cool is that?» (and most of the critics did go that way). Not that it really means anything, or that anybody could actually explain what is so particularly exciting about a sampled tiger roar. But it's an experiment. It could work — and then again, it could not work. You are supposed to find that out for yourself.

I respect experiment, especially when the experiment in question involves performing lots of hard work (and on Foley Room, with its miriads of samples interconnected in miriads of ways, Tobin seems to have done more hard work than ever before), and, on a sheerly intellectual level, the al­bum is a mega-achievement, worth all the thumbs up that it can get. Unfortunately, on an emoti­onal level, it, at best, gives that «same old same old» feeling, and, at worst, whispers that the feel­ing used to be stronger and sharper in the past.

Thus, technically, the experiment succeeds; but it looks like we are still a long way from reaching that stage when «sounds of the street» will be­come so naturally integrated in music-making that we'd start thinking of all the earlier music as hopelessly outdated. And I am all for replacing gui­tars, violins, and pianos with kitchen sinks and tiger roars — provided they can assume all of the functions of guitars, violins, and pianos, without losing their own. Until then, albums like Foley Room will always be «interesting», never «cathartic».

Check "Foley Room" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Foley Room" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. I'm having some hard time trying to get your last paragraph. I can't think of any of the "innovators" of concrète & sons back to Varèse and Schaeffer who would think of "earlier music" as "hopelessly outdated", let alone have an agenda for that. Schaeffer in particular was quite conservative: he considered himself a technician, was a jazz fan, and regretted not having been able to ever "reach" what he considered "music". Then, "I am all for replacing instruments with other shit provided the other shit can function like instruments" just baffles me. How and, why? Can you imagine how boring would the world be if nobody had realized that a piece of wood with strings didn't have to function like a voice just because "music is sung"? What's the point of coming up with new stuff that "functions like the old stuff" if the old stuff is there doing it alright? And do you really, I mean reaaally think all music should be... cathartic? I remember a George Mikes' joke about crime novels, where he said people misjudged them as literature, and in the future they'd be sold at drugstores in injectable form. I wouldn't go that far, but do you realize that Bach's music was considered cerebral crap, that Mozart's last symphonies were deemed cold, that all of Brahms' music was seen as intellectual exercise? The rhetorics that justify their work now were developed _upon_ them, not by them -it's when their styles went dead that their semantics became "evident". I'm sure you know all this, especially being a linguist, that's why it baffles me. It's quite mystifying to assume that all of music's power comes from "something" that "somehow" is contained in tonal structures and melodic lines played on instruments. The whole point of experimental art is finding new expressions, not just new technical ways of expressing the same. The expressiveness of traditional means is not a miracle, is the result of a pile of _centuries_ perfecting ways of generating detail without having to thoroughly think about it. In electronic music you actually have to _make_ everything, so whenever you focus on big arcs of form or meaning the surface may stay too basic to express it, and when you work on the detail to make it organic you get trapped and the flow suffers. There are tons of people working on approaches to this whole family of problems. That's why it's called experimental! You don't have a system of proven solutions, people keep doing it because it's actually thrilling. I agree that his new ways are not so removed from his old ones -but the reason is quite tangible: all the expressive detail of his samples... was already there! He just didn't have to work out that. Now, notwithstanding the pleasures you may or not pull out, being partial to something only when it turns evident is a strange position to take. With that logic, nothing would ever come to be.