Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 1)


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.


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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