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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Amon Tobin: ISAM


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.

Check "ISAM" (CD) on Amazon
Check "ISAM" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. I share part of your feelings, but for different reasons. If the world is so filled up of sonic collages, it should have exploded of pop songs already. I wouldn't be able to divide history between before and after "it was sufficient to be adventurous in order to gain respect". When would that be? 1970? 1985? I mean, really, that always happened, and keeps happening, and the contrary too. Both things happen in different contexts. Calling this music "sonic collages" is itself an exaggeration -I can't imagine which word would you have for each and every album Evan Parker has released. Some of these tracks are even songs. Now I'm not sure how good they are. I sense something that is quite usual in this kind of "jumps to total control": you get so focused on the sonic building, that harmonic and melodic aspects end up tossed up, as if they were "secondary". The problem is they _are_ there, and they're noticed no matter how much you crunch your sounds. For example, a big exception for me would be Loveless -I actually think the impact of that album is not due to the sonic bursts, but to the fact that some very terse and subtle harmonic and melodic stuff is pushed to the subconscious by those bursts. Now I like some harmonic and even melodic ideas here, while many of them just pass me by. Moreover, I have the impression that some fragments are put in purely experimental fashion, to try them out, so some flows get broken in a way that doesn't seem all that deliberate. Now I'm not sure he should "go back to simplistic music-making". In any case I wouldn't say "simplistic" but "less controlled" -but there's no reason to assume that total control itself would render shit. What I fear, and this is completely speculative, is that he might be getting a little... serious -or, as Paula Scher would say, solemn. The whole affair sounds a little "respectable" compared to his previous stuff, so I smell a shift of context, to one where, maybe, "it's enough to be adventurous in order to gain respect". That's the part of "the more experimental this guy keeps getting, the less innovative and interesting his art becomes" that I share -but I would say: if he just happens to be taking this "jump to total control" with too much, er, "respect"... he'll stiffen.