AMON TOBIN: ISAM (2011)
1) Journeyman; 2) Piece Of Paper; 3) Goto 10; 4) Surge; 5) Lost & Found; 6) Wooden Toy; 7) Mass & Spring; 8) Calculate; 9) Kitty Cat; 10) Bedtime Stories; 11) Night Swim; 12) Dropped From The Sky.
«Off the deep end» is, of course, a very relative notion — many people will find even the most «accessible» albums in Tobin's backpack to be bizarre and frightening mind-bending concoctions — but, on the artist's own scale, I would say that ISAM is clearly the breaking point, at which even some of the man's staunchest fans will be presented with a take-it-or-leave-it dilemma.
Even Foley Room was, with certain reservations, a musically-oriented record. Its followup, although it formally continues to build upon that foundation, makes a firm transition into the sonically-oriented field. Most of the tracks still have some sort of rhythmic basis, but essentially they are collages, stuck together from a variety of field recordings, tiny musical beats, and electronic treatments. Cujo himself called this a «sound sculpture» — who are we to contradict him?
Unfortunately, the sculpture is mostly undescribable. A detailed listing of all the sounds that constitute a track like 'Journeyman', accompanied by an evaluation of all the transition effects, would take hours, if not days, to put together — and the payoff? my guess it would simply look dumb. All that remains in the reviewer's power is simply to state that yes, it is an electronically based rhythmic sound collage, and, once you have taken the time to listen to it, you may or may not agree with the reviewer's position: it is curious, but emotionally vague, like so many other experimental sound collages going all the way back to the days of 'Revolution #9'.
On the positive side, there are some interesting links between «song» titles and the «music», particularly on the second half of the album. 'Bedtime Stories', for instance, starts out with kiddie chimes that usually prepare the listener for some soothing Christmas experience, but then turns into a heavy bass / deep fuzz / treated vocal extravaganza — the sort of «bedtime story» that will, perhaps, be narrated by Mother Robot to her kids once humanity is finally wiped out by artifical intelligence. 'Night Swim', dominated by slightly dissonant harp strumming and Milky-Way-ish synthesizer swirls, likewise, creates an atmosphere that is associable with the title.
There are a few vocal tracks here, too, on which it seems that Tobin may be taking some cues from the Animal Collective (only, as befits the gentleman, his songs are always darker): 'Kitty Cat', for instance, which, at a certain point, threatens to go upbeat Brit-pop on us, with a bouncy music-hall rhythm, while still retaining its kaleidoscopic electronic skin and warped psychedelic voices; or 'Wooden Toy', which actually sounds like a possible outtake from one of Animal Collective's earlier albums. However, these concise, somewhat song-like creations, are more of an exception than the rule here.
As questionable as it may sound, I would still go ahead and say this: the more «experimental» this guy keeps getting, the less «innovative» and «interesting» his art actually becomes. By 2011, the world has already had its multi-ton share of sonic collages of all sorts, shapes, and flavors. So what exactly is it that could make ISAM into a new musical sensation? Just the fact that this is, let's say, «Amon Tobin mixed with Autechre»? The adventurous spirit is admirable, but we are long, long past the time when it was simply sufficient for the spirit to be adventurous in order to gain critical respect and a cult following. As far as my ears and brain neurons are concerned, ISAM has neither meaning nor direct emotional impact. On the other hand, it still has a certain aura of «coolness», and it was a sort of abstract «fun» to listen to it for the first time. But I still hope, very much so, that one of these days Mr. Cujo will decide to go back to «simplistic» music-making. Otherwise, he will simply drown in the same old sea corner whose «deep end» has already attracted so many other talented people.
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