Restraint is not a quality often associated with Amon Tobin's music, and his latest work ISAM is no exception to this rule. From a distance, the album could be described as another dense, complicated, and unhinged addition to the electro-savante's catalog of releases. However, ISAM earns these adjectives for largely different reasons than experienced fans of Tobin’s work may be expecting. Those hoping for another expansive sonic mystery like Foley Room or Supermodified may find themselves befuddled at the directness of the sounds that inhabit these tracks. Buzzy , tweaked out synth lines are the order of the day here, with few organic noises or atmospheric echoes to smooth off the edges. Tobin has also decided to back away from the flourishes of orchestral grandeur which he has been known to dabble in, and the production here is uncrowded and (by Amon Tobin standards) notably sparse. Yet each track is certainly crowded with ideas, with little repetition of parts or motifs and essentially no discernible song structure throughout. Needless to say, ISAM is not an easy album, and does not give the listener much of a break. So is the amount of effort that Tobin is demanding from us justified?
It’s clear that Tobin is making a consistent and focused statement here, as he rarely deviates from the in-your-face bleeps, creeps and sweeps. Despite it's occasionally nonsensical presentation, this isn’t the random collection of tossed off sound effects that a cursory listen to the album by the uninitiated might find it to be. There is a clear sense that something important is being said, even if we can't exactly make it out - like a computer is furiously trying to explain something to you in binary.
At the least, ISAM is a bid to display Tobin’s mastery of sound manipulation in as raw and naked a fashion as possible. By downplaying naturalistic samples in favor of a more explicitly digital arsenal of sounds, the knob twisting and studio wizardry becomes more transparent. It’s as if Tobin has intentionally removed all the smoke and mirrors that normally make his complex compositions go down more easily in order to challenge his listeners into accepting the underlying ideas of his work as more than a series of fancy sci-fi-noir setpieces.
With ISAM, Tobin has produced something that is not meant to be treated as “enjoyable” music as much as pure sound art. And like a long tour of the MOMA, we are treated to an extended series of seemingly independent works, some of which are interesting... and few of which are beautiful in the traditional sense. The whole experience makes us feel like we are coming away with something significant, but we aren't sure what, exactly. Tobin is acting as a curator in his own museum, arranging these myriad pieces according to a logic that is only partially revealed to his guests. There’s a distinct urge to hold one’s chin, furrow your brow, and offer a pensive, “hmmm....”
The truth is, not all of these gallery pieces make sense. Exhibit A is “Kitty Cat”, a nearly 4-minute-plus yarn that sounds like it’s being sung by a the scary child character in a horror movie. This is not nearly as spine tingling as it sounds. (and oddly enough, in terms of structure, it's the most traditional song on the album.) Diversions like this serve no clear purpose for ISAM, as our befuddled listener is swiftly ushered on to another roomful of squelchy synths. But others such as "Lost and Found" and "Bedtime Stories" offer moments of confused wonder and some genuine excitement. ISAM is, in almost every sense, a mixed bag.
But glaring question marks and unresolved explorations are inevitable with an album as risky as ISAM. And (like the MOMA) ISAM will mean different things to different people. Is it a challenging masterpiece, or a meaningless mess? To stake out an absolutist opinion with such a modernist work of art would be to do it a disservice. And this, ultimately, seems to be Tobin’s challenge to the listeners: to invite us into his twisted musical gallery, and see where we as listeners choose to take away from it. Truth be told, it's probably asking too much to take it all - but we will be better listeners for having tried.
by Amon Tobin
- Justin Schmidt