Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 1)

isam

Dear Matthew:

I feel as though we should move directly into the bleeps and bloops at this point.

Amon Tobin is one of my favourite musicians maybe ever. He got his start in the 90s as part of that wave of chilled-out British drum and bass that formed the entire soundtrack of shows like Spaced, a sound that his label Ninja Tune (with whom he is still signed) practically invented. He worked with samples, usually of old jazz records, cut up and mashed together to create new songs altogether. After a few records like this, however, Tobin began to get bored, and started going increasingly further afield when sourcing his samples, twisting and processing them further and further beyond recognition. His sound started to get darker, bigger, and crunchier. Then, like Eno before him, he started getting conceptual. He started doing soundtracks. He did an album where he recorded all of the samples himself. And then, in 2011, he released an album created entirely with synthesizers he created himself digitally — many based, of course, on his own field recordings. The album was called ISAM (Invented Sounds Applied to Music), and that’s what you’ll be listening to this week.

ISAM is incredibly ambitious. The aural palette Tobin creates for himself is absolutely massive, and the range of emotions he’s able to evoke with it is equally broad. ISAM is bombastic, haunting, ponderous, playful, and everything in between. Some tracks are more like experimental sound design than anything you could reasonably call music. It sounds nothing like any of his previous work, and yet it’s still unmistakably his work. It was never going to be a crowdpleaser, but if people are still talking about Tobin in twenty years, my money is on this album being why.

Now, when you release a new record, your label usually wants you to go on tour to support it. But what do you do when you make electronic music that is, for the most part, completely impossible to dance to? In the 90s, Tobin’s solution was to learn to DJ so he could play music that people actually would dance to, and he soon started pushing technological boundaries there, too. (He was one of the first big names to embrace vinyl emulation software like Serato, which is now industry standard.) But ISAM was such a completely different beast that touring it that way just didn’t make sense.

So, he didn’t.

isamlive

Surprise! This week’s assignment is a double bill. After you listen to the studio version of ISAM, you’re going to be watching a film of ISAM Live, the show Tobin and a team of engineers, artists and programmers created to tour it.

I’ve always found live electronic music to present an interesting dilemma. A lot of producers start off as DJs, so their live show usually follows that sort of spontaneous, semi-improvised format. But when your music isn’t designed for the dancefloor and you can’t feasibly recreate it live, how are you supposed to perform it? Do you just sit down on stage in front of your laptop and press play? Daft Punk seem to have found the answer in 2006, which I’ve written about elsewhere: you create an arena-sized audiovisual experience. But, when you do that, you have to plan everything out in advance, and if you’re a DJ, that makes you nervous. So there’s this interesting sort of cognitive dissonance you have to navigate within the scene, and you can get a lot of grief if people think you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

I will state unequivocally that, for my money, Amon Tobin is the greatest DJ in the universe. But ISAM Live is about as far from live DJing as you can get. The set is a blocky expanse of cubes covered in techy, psychedelic projection-mapped video, and Tobin is up there in his control pod pressing buttons that are presumably connected to something, but when you get right down to it, you’re not watching something spontaneous — you’re watching a tightly rehearsed performance. This might not seem strange to someone with your background, but remember that most electronic musicians start as DJs, so for them, this approach is highly counterintuitive. With ISAM Live, Tobin was at the forefront of a new take on live electronic music, one the broader scene still hasn’t quite wrapped its head around.

I’ve already written a lot, so at this point I should probably shut up and let the music (and video) speak for itself. I am extremely interested to hear what you make of all this.

— Matt

PS: ISAM Live includes the first encore from the performance, but both times I saw it (shut up, he toured with a beefed up version of the show a year later), he did a short DJ set as a second encore afterward. And, since I did claim earlier that he is the greatest DJ in the universe, I’m also going to have you listen to that second encore from the second version of the ISAM Live tour, which was released as a free download. It’s got stuff from other artists, but it’s mostly tracks by Two Fingers, a side project of Tobin’s where he takes all of the insane stuff he does in his solo career, like building a bunch of digital synthesizers from scratch, and makes straightup dancefloor devastators with it. God, I love Amon Tobin.

PPS: Check out the original artwork for ISAM. Like the final artwork and the artwork for the single ‘Surge’, it comes from an installation by visual artist Tessa Farmer called Control Over Nature, created specifically for the album. God, I love Amon Tobin.

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Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 2)

Eno

Dear Matthew:

This is a really cool album.

I mean, I know who Brian Eno is — he’s that guy who did all those albums that Music People like. But, apart from a cursory listen to Here Come the Warm Jets a few years ago, I don’t really have any experience with his music firsthand, unless you count my ongoing love affair with ‘Once in a Lifetime‘. That reputation always kind of preceded him, and I always figured he’d just be too arty for me, or something.

But, digging into this album, what I immediately noticed was what you meant by the album’s agelessness. I listened to the 2004 remaster, which probably helps, but you’re right — you could’ve told me that this came out last year and I would’ve believed you. Eno was unbelievably ahead of the curve, especially given what you’ve told me about his working methods. In his attempts to be more a sort of curator of sound than a musician himself, he set the mold for the careers of any number of modern producers who, in your phraseology, play people rather than instruments. Your new friend Dan the Automator springs to mind as a particularly apt example of this approach to music production.

I’m also reminded of the Kate Bush album you had me listen to, in that I’m seeing all kinds of groundwork for modern music I’m already really into. Acts like Amon Tobin, Four Tet, Sigur Rós, and even arguably guys like Flying Lotus or J Dilla — they’ve built entire careers on the foundation provided by tracks like ‘Sky Saw’ and ‘In Dark Trees’. Most of these guys work primarily with samples rather than live musicians, but I think that means the Eno paradigm actually applies even more.

(‘In Dark Trees’ actually gave me the most incredible feeling of déjà vu when it came on, although I soon realized that’s because it appears in Electroma, Daft Punk’s 2006 arthouse film about two robots who want to become human.)

My only complaint about this album is that a lot of the songs seem … unfinished. A lot of tracks — usually the shorter ones, but not exclusively — feel more like demos than like polished final versions. Maybe it’s because I’m used to modern guys like the Chemical Brothers who will take a good musical idea and run it into the ground for twelve minutes at a time, but a good two thirds of the songs on this album feel like they end too soon. I feel like I’m just starting to sink my teeth into them, and then they stop. That’s actually probably the giveaway for dating this album: had it come out last year, it would probably be at least an hour long.

Anyway, congratulations. I think you’ve found your first album to hook me the same way Deltron 3030 and Wrong hooked you. Now! To sit back and wait for it to spring to mind unbidden.

— Matt

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 1)

Eno

Dear Matt,

This week, you’ll be diving into the definitive album by a figure with whom you have a passing familiarity already: Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

To our generation, Eno’s best-known creation is probably this sound, here. Insofar as his name means anything, it’s probably ‘massively prestigious record producer.’ Eno helped to craft some of the most acclaimed albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, amongst others.

But, at the time of Another Green World, he was not yet the Eno of legend. This was five years before Remain in Light, and 12 years before The Joshua Tree. In 1975, Eno’s career basically consisted of two albums as a synth player with Roxy Music and a couple of pretty straightforwardly glam rock solo albums — which, by the way, have two of the most fantastic titles ever: Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Another Green World was a turning point for Eno in that it was the album where he stopped focussing on writing songs, and started focussing on making rules, instead. Reading about the way this album was made is just maddening: Eno basically hired a bunch of top-flight musicians (John Cale on viola, Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums…) and invited them into the studio without having written any music.

Then, they’d just try stuff. Eno would impose arbitrary rules, like ‘the microphones will hang from the ceiling, today,’ and he’d hope like hell that it wasn’t all a tremendous waste of money.

I have no idea how those methods could have resulted in this album. Another Green World is an astonishing feat of musical craftsmanship. It is unbelievably detailed; even in comparatively minimalistic tracks like ‘Zawinul/Lava,’ there’s so much going on in the background to produce musical tension.

Also, the fact that Eno abandoned all traditional methods of making an album might account for why Another Green World is so weirdly ageless. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell what decade it was made in if I didn’t already know.

This will also conveniently serve as your introduction to a figure you’ll be hearing more from in the near future: King Crimson’s guitarist and leader Robert Fripp. I love King Crimson, but when I just want to hear Fripp playing the stuffing out of his instrument, I’m most likely to put on a Brian Eno album. Because, Robert Fripp’s ability to play the guitar is second only to Brian Eno’s ability to play Robert Fripp.

That’s what makes Eno kind of unique in all of music. He describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ (he even tried to get that listed as his occupation on his passport), but he’s been able to spearhead some of the most staggering albums of the past fifty years, just through the sheer power of lateral thinking and clever leadership.

By the way, the small crisis I seem to have experienced after Belle and Sebastian failed to knock me flat has basically passed. You mentioned to me shortly after I posted my response that Belle and Sebastian isn’t the kind of band that does knock you flat on the first listen; it takes a while to sink in. After a couple more listens, I can feel it happening already, and I have renewed faith in my ability to appreciate new music.

I bring that up mostly because Another Green World is very much the same in that way. It took me years to think of this as anything more than ‘fairly good.’ I don’t know another album that benefits more from living with it for a while. So, listen to it once and tell me what you think. Then maybe ignore it for a bit and whenever it comes to mind unbidden, try again.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve been looking for an album that will grab you by the throat and start you up on new and unexpected musical journeys. This is not going to be that album. But, I’m pretty confident that, given your other tastes, you’ll eventually love this.

— Matthew

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 2)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matt,

I’m a fan of feelings. I have a whole bunch of them — possibly something close to a complete set. Certainly, more than anybody would suspect from actually talking to me.

But, before I talk about feelings, I want to talk about facts.

One sure way for any band to pull me in is to make references that I understand. Lyrical references, stylistic references, whatever. And as you’ve implied a couple of times already, Belle and Sebastian live comfortably within my cultural sphere — namely, an imagined version of the ’60s that neither I nor Stuart Murdoch can claim to remember.

Actually, the references here span a larger swathe of my knowledge even than that. Did you know, for instance, that Mornington Crescent is a recurring feature on a popular BBC comedy programme, in which panelists take turns naming London tube stations until somebody says ‘Mornington Crescent?’ It’s the British equivalent of Calvinball. No idea what, if anything, that has to do with the song.

But I promise that I didn’t only like The Life Pursuit because it flatters me for my understanding of references that I might actually just be imagining. Ultimately, I am just a sucker for a great melody, and there are plenty of them here. I mean, the shapes of the phrases in ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ are just irresistible. And that trumpet in ‘Dress Up In You.’ Ahh.

And you’re right that they can sound a lot like the Zombies sometimes. Although, I think that what they have in common is more of a spirit than a sound. Both bands produce a kind of music that I’ve never quite been able to adequately describe: it is natural music. It seems obvious, self-evident, like it could have written itself. There’s no artifice to it. Other artists that come to mind are Paul McCartney and Felix Mendelssohn.

But here’s the thing: I can think of exactly nothing else interesting to say about this. My usual approaches are failing me, here. I don’t feel alienated by The Life Pursuit, nor did it leave me feeling inclined to compose a fawning encomium. It doesn’t suggest a particular part of my musical autobiography that I could riff on. I do not detect any actual magic in it.

Don’t interpret any of this as a vote of no enthusiasm. I can tell I’ll be spinning The Life Pursuit with some frequency in the near future. It’s just… here we are right now with you saying you liked the Zombies, but you’ll never like them as much as Belle and Sebastian. Here I am saying I liked Belle and Sebastian, but I’ll never like them as much as the Zombies. To be fair, a certain amount of intransigence is to be expected with music nerds like us.

But, you’ll recall that when we started this project, I expressed a concern that my musical tastes were calcifying. It’s still a concern. There’s a part of me that despairs to think that at the age of 24, I’ve already reached the point where I’ll never find new music that I like better than my old music.

And, The Life Pursuit somehow really brought that anxiety to the surface. Because I liked it. I really did. I’ve liked nearly everything you’ve assigned so far. Loved some of it. But none of it has knocked me flat like the prog I discovered in high school, or the classical rep that my first degree introduced me to.

Two months into this project, we’ve both got more music that we kind of like. Surely, this is an entirely acceptable outcome. So, why does it feel like an impasse?

— Matthew

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 1)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matthew:

How do you feel about Feelings? Because it has come to my attention since my last post that you’ve never listened to any Belle and Sebastian.

You may recall that I have previously described the Glaswegian indie pop legends as one of the staple bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. Along with Rilo Kiley, LCD Soundsystem, Bright Eyes, Tegan and Sara, etc., these guys were the bread and butter of a particular variety of melancholy music nerd when I was finishing high school/starting university — I know you know the type. Belle and Sebastian are more than a little twee, and the word ‘wistful’ seems to have been invented specifically to describe both the lyrics and delivery of frontman and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch — who, as previously discussed, may in fact be some sort of ageless time traveller who has been making pop music in Great Britain since the ’60s. Belle and Sebastian is a band that runs entirely on nostalgia and hooks. I love them, obviously.

The hardest part of this assignment has been deciding which album to start you out with. Most B&S diehards will tell you that their second album, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, is their undisputed masterpiece, and that you should start there. That’s what I did initially, though, and I wasn’t exactly blown away. I filed them away as one of those bands that other people love fanatically that I just don’t ‘get,’ like the Smiths or Bob Marley. It wasn’t until I gave 2006’s The Life Pursuit a spin that I really got hooked. It’s a much peppier, catchier, less despondent, more energetic, more radio-friendly affair than — well, than any of their previous records, really, while still being undeniably a Belle and Sebastian record. Sure, it doesn’t have any ‘classics’ like ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap‘ or ‘I’m a Cuckoo,’ and the first track is a bit of a slow burner compared to the tremendous numbers that start their two most recent albums. But if I was going to list what it has got, I would just end up writing out most of the track list. This is a very easy album to like, and I want you to like this band.

This brings up an interesting question about ‘getting into’ bands with big catalogues and huge fanbases that I’ve struggled with for a while. Most such bands do have a particular album commonly agreed upon as their magnum opus that most fans will point you toward: Daft Punk has Discovery, the Beach Boys have Pet Sounds, Pink Floyd has The Dark Side of the Moon, etc. But as often as not, a band’s so-called ‘classic’ album doesn’t end up being the one that hooks me. I didn’t get into Tegan and Sara until I listened to Sainthood and I didn’t get into Rilo Kiley until I listened to Under the Blacklight, which to ardent fans of those bands is kind of like saying I didn’t get into Talking Heads until I listened to … I don’t know, any album that isn’t Remain in Light. It’s ass-backwards from the conventional wisdom, is what I’m saying — and also what I’m assigning you here. So we’ll see how it goes.

So, like many a white kid before you, let these pop hooks and pleasing chord progressions grab you and pull you into a world of utterly enjoyable despair. Really get some catharsis happening. And try to make it last, because two weeks from now, you are going to be listening to some of the most insane bleep-bloop electronic bullshit I know.

—Matt

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 2)

zombiesodyssey

Dear Matthew:

A few short hours after the Magma show, I left Vancouver for a few days. (Not related. Honest.) I returned yesterday evening, and made my way almost immediately to the Vogue Theatre downtown to see my favourite sad-guy band, Belle and Sebastian. It was an excellent show. I woke up this morning, loaded up Odessey and Oracle onto my phone and went out for a walk down toward the beach — and when I pressed play, I was hit with one of the most intense feelings of déjà vu I have experienced in recent memory.

Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. I mean, I knew Belle and Sebastian had a certain wistful nostalgia, but I didn’t realize just how deep it ran. I expect you could probably take someone who hadn’t heard anything by either band and play them a selection of either band’s work and they wouldn’t be much better than random chance at guessing which band it is. In fact, I’m still grappling with the possibility that Stuart Murdoch is actually some sort of Dorian Grey-esque being who just hasn’t stopped making pop music since the ’60s. (Seriously, tell me ‘I’m a Cuckoo‘ doesn’t sound like a b-side from Odessey.)

I am exaggerating for comedic effect, of course. The Zombies are much more blissed out than Murdoch and company, which is the main reason I don’t think I’ll ever like them as much. The sense of wisftulness that permeates even the peppiest B&S tunes is the secret sauce, as is the case with most of their sad-guy contemporaries — Rilo Kiley, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and all of those other bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. To make a lazy comparison, this is Belle and Sebastian on Prozac. You’re right, though — this is music scientifically designed to release endorphins. It was perfect for a sunny walk along the bay. (Of course, mere hours beforehand, a tanker had spilled a bunch of oil into it. I’m reaching for The Boy With the Arab Strap already…)

What is it about the British that made them so good at this particular brand of pop music? Was it the climate? Was it the lingering cultural and socioeconomic shadow of the Second World War? Was it just that they were the first to do it? Either way, they’re codifiers of the genre, and they continue to excel at it. (Calling a band as Scottish as Belle and Sebastian British is probably borderline offensive, but humour me, it’s the same landmass, and it’s not like I’m calling them English.)

When all is said and done, though, it’s like any sort of immediate endorphin release — too much can’t be good for you. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to their modern-day sad-guy doppelgangers, but Odessey feels like musical candy: sweet and very satisfying if you’re in the mood for it, but I wouldn’t want it for every meal.

Still, sometimes it’s just the thing you’re after.

— Matt

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 1)

zombiesodyssey

Dear Matt:

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting overwhelming enthusiasm towards Magma, frankly. But, be content that you have now experienced the proggiest of the prog, and that it’s all smooth sailing from here.

I’m thinking that you’ll need a palate cleanser after a two-hour concert of ‘the least accessible music you’ve ever heard.’ So, this week you’ll be listening to a jaunty little trifle from 1966: The Zombies’ Odessey [sic] and Oracle. (The guy who painted the album cover couldn’t spell, and by the time he turned in his work, it was too late to fix it. The album has been known by its misspelled name ever since. Oh, the 60s.)

The Zombies were a late vestige of the British Invasion. They had two fantastic songwriters in keyboardist Rod Argent (who went on to have a successful career with his solo project, Argent), and bassist Chris White (who went on to have almost no subsequent career, save for co-writing a few hits for Rod Argent’s successful solo project, Argent).

In their day, they were probably best known for their 1964 hit “She’s Not There.” Nowadays, they’re almost entirely remembered for this album, which is just wall-to-wall joy, even by psychedelic standards. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered another album so straightforwardly focussed on coaxing endorphins out of the pituitary. Even the sad, disturbing songs like “A Rose for Emily” or “Butcher’s Tale” are cathartically sad and disturbing.

60s psychedelia was a complex and unruly beast. But, I find that most psychedelic albums fit into one of two broad categories that I refer to as Peppers and Pipers. (This is clever. Stay with me on this.)

See, in early 1967, the Beatles were at Abbey Road studios, recording their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I think is tied with Hamlet for the title of Most Acclaimed Thing Ever. Sgt. Pepper is meticulous, crafted, layered, and ornate. The songs have a sort of British restraint to them, in spite of their lush orchestrations and the colourful album art.

Meanwhile, literally just down the hall from the Beatles, in the same studio, Pink Floyd was recording their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which foregrounds all of the chaotic, improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness tendencies in late 60s pop music.

These two albums are both undeniably psychedelic, but they represent two entirely different strands of psychedelia. Other Peppers include Forever ChangesPet Sounds, and Days of Future Passed. Other Pipers include Electric Ladyland, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

The Zombies recorded Odessey and Oracle a few months later, in that same studio. It’s much more of a Pepper than a Piper. And, I suspect that’s why it’s aged so well, in spite of being so thoroughly of its time. Really good songwriting never stops being awesome. Loose, garage band jamming kind of does.

Side note: I am absurdly certain that “Care of Cell 44” will at some point be featured on Orange is the New Black. Just wait.

I really hope you like this. I hope that, because I feel like you’re winning this blog in terms of assigning music that I’ll like. I’ve revisited Deltron 3030 and Wrong frequently since those initial assignments, and they’ve improved with multiple listens. One of these weeks, I’m hoping to find something that’ll work that well for you.

Maybe this is it? In any case, it’s about as far from Magma as you can get. I expect there’s virtue in that.

— Matthew