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Amon Tobin - ISAM

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Artist: Amon Tobin

Album: ISAM

Label: Ninja Tune

Review date: May. 23, 2011

“Anyone looking for jazzy brks should look elsewhere at this point or earlier : ). It’s 2011 folks, welcome to the future.”

This is the greeting you get — missing vowels, smiley face and all — as the first comment of Amon Adonai Santos de Araújo Tobin’s guided tour through his seventh full-length album, ISAM. It’s a curious comment; anyone who has followed Tobin’s post-Out From Out Where career knows full well he’s been moving away from the breaks and sample-based brilliance of his early material for years. It’s like he’s implicitly acknowledging that fans who either forgot about him half a decade ago or brushed off the Splinter Cell soundtrack and Foley Room material as gimmicks shouldn’t approach this “proper” album with any hope for the old. That Amon is gone and no amount of interest from others can revive his own in well-trod territory.

Anyone who says that, of course, has little appreciation for what makes Tobin so good: No sound sits well with him for long. An unwavering drive to experiment with sound (often for sound’s sake) is what ultimately led him to ISAM. The albums that established him as a millennial force to be reckoned with — Bricolage, Permutation and Supermodified — thrived on snippets and sections of other records. As he establishes right at the beginning of the Foley Room documentary, it was “all about changing sound as opposed to creating sounds.” Deep dustbins and endless shelves of vinyl were his guiding muses. That worked for him. Ten years ago.

ISAM isn’t interested in that M.O. Its dozen songs are less “past sounds perfected” and more “future sounds imperfected.” Even without Tobin’s modest guide, cursory listens give off a futuristic, “can robots love?” vibe. The aesthetic is heavily digitized in that scratched CD kind of way, damaged technology the dominant theme; nary a vinyl sample or jazz break can be found. Tobin instead distorts a squeaking chair beyond recognition on the aggressive “Goto 10,” switches genders for the vocals on “Wooden Toy” and “Kitty Cat,” plays with fake flutes and collects ambient interludes, and unites it all under Tessa Farmer’s eye-catching artwork.

It’s concessionary insofar as it isn’t strict mood music (Splinter Cell) or totally abstract sound designs (Foley Room). Tobin spent time with field recordings and multisampling techniques, and he took six months to learn new software and hardware in preparation for ISAM. But even if “Surge” is built on revving car sounds, the melody clears quickly. “Mass & Spring” is aggressive in its sounds, but basic in its notes. “Dropped From the Sky” is an excellent closer, a seven-minute marriage of dial-up connections, handclap beats, and swerving synths. This is where his “grains and fragments cluster together to make something that resembles a beat” best.

ISAM‘s clusters aren’t as advanced as Tobin might have you think, and only represent a monumental leap forward if you compare them to his trio of classic albums, all of which were recorded more than 10 years ago. When you’re dealing with an artist of Tobin’s caliber, though, even trimming the hedges is worth witnessing.

By Patrick Masterson

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