Amon Tobin: ISAM
Ninja Tune

Artists evolve and so they should. No one, then, should begrudge Amon Tobin's progressive gravitation away from the breakbeat-heavy style of earlier albums such as Permutation and Supermodified, crate-digging productions that appeared more than a decade ago. Whether the music on his seventh recording ISAM, which arrives four years after Foley Room, is as satisfying as a listening experience as those earlier albums is, however, a question that might certainly be posed. Whereas Tobin used samples of field-recorded elements for source material (instead of vinyl samples) on Foley Room, ISAM offers an even braver new world from Tobin in that he started with field recordings but then synthesized the sounds and built them into actual playable instruments that were then used to create the album. The breathy vocals that appear on “Wooden Toy” and elsewhere are Tobin's, though treatments have rendered them free of gender identification.

The album's dozen tracks are loaded with an incredible amount of detail, at times so much they become oppressive and claustrophobic (one would expect that a song titled “Bedtime Stories” might be presented as a sparsely arranged lullaby yet even here Tobin can't help but fill every moment with an excess of sound elements). The most satisfying moments are those that are less weighed down by clutter, but such moments are few and far between. The album succeeds best in those moments where melody overrides design, such as during “Kitty Cat,” whose playful vibe is enhanced by its sing-song melodies and relatively straightforward presentation. Beats are largely eschewed though echoes of Tobin's previous beat-based style are present in the heavy dubstep-styled trudge that acts as a rumbling foundation for the writhing figures of “Goto 10.” Exotic string instruments lend “Lost & Found” a dramatic Middle Eastern character, though once again a heavy beat wobble, slowed to a crawl, nudges the material towards dubstep's orbit.

ISAM is an audacious, adventurous, and resolutely experimental work that is inarguably the logical next step in his artistic evolution, and one marvels at the incredible range of sound design Tobin explores throughout the recording. But broached on purely listening terms, it's hardly the most enjoyable Tobin collection, and ISAM ends up being more a recording one appreciates than enjoys. It's fitting that the live show Tobin's planned for ISAM is intended to be as ambitious as the album (apparently a 3-D art installation enveloping Tobin and the audience is involved), as even the visual approach suggests Tobin's discarded the relative simplicity of a former DJ-centric approach for something more grandiose and bombastic.

June 2011