When Amon Tobin releases a new album I start to get a little excited. I don't know what it is about the man, he just manages to make consistently great albums, a rare thing for an artist 15 years into his career. A decade and a half has passed since Adventures in Foam, so can Amon still breathe new life into electronic music? Has the great innovator still go it? Yes, he is still the master innovator, but the rules have changed. Quite a lot.
Music he released 10-15 years ago is still being used in modern film and in that hour-long car commercial we love to watch on Sunday nights in Blighty (there is a cheeky nod to Top Gear in track 4). The sounds and techniques he develops now may not immediately have mass appeal, but they tend to mature over time. This album looks set to continue that trend. ISAM is a very futuristic album, one that may be a bit too ahead of it's time for many, but one that will stand the test of time like Supermodified and Out from Out Where. But unlike those albums, this album is the one that will test the fans.
Expecting the unexpected, the modus operandi of all Amon Tobin records, has become ironic in that his work is predictably unpredictable. So this album is business as usual, right? Sort of. This album seems to revel in being so different to his prior work that it seems to delight in building your expectations only to sweep the rug from under you. Out of all his work, this album mangles your expectations more than any other. But I guess we expected that. Frustrating as it first seems, I found the complexity to be mind boggling to the point where other records, his own included, seem basic by comparison.
But is this dashing of expectations a bad thing? I think not. It wouldn't be Tobin else. I can honestly put hand on heart and say I'm adoring this album. This is the densest, most complex music I have ever heard and confirms Amon Tobin as possibly the greatest sound designer in the world at the moment. After listening for the first time I just needed to sit and digest what I had just heard. This album does need your undivided attention to get the best from it. It's not a casual listen so set some time aside
Album track lengths vary between 2 and 7 minutes with the total run time coming in at just over 50 minutes, which I think is the perfect length for an album of this complexity. The album is closely affiliated to Saatchi Gallery artist Tessa Farmer and her 'Control Over Nature' installation. Amon goes on to say his music and Tessa's artwork go hand-in-hand as they both seek to re-order natural things. When I read this I couldn't help but think is this album a soundtrack to something else, like Taxidermia, or is this an out-and-out progression to Foley Room? It feels like a mixture of both, but we are way beyond those two albums now.
There are no words to describe ISAM so it's almost redundant for me to try, but if you can imagine Brian Eno, Vangelis, Thom Yorke, Autechre and a Disney best-of compilation record being blended together, you get halfway to the sound of this record. A poor description I know, but Amon Tobin has always occupied his own genre and this album sets to continue that trend. Melody is a key ingredient here, and Amon's musicianship has reached such a high standard that samples are no longer necessary and beat driven tracks have all but been phased out in favour of warped sound and twisted melody. He has purposely avoided using drums in this record, although he has fashioned found-sound samples, including his own voice and a creaky studio chair, into musical instruments. The result is both familiar and unfamiliar. The use of melody on tracks like Bedtime Stories have a wonderful innocence about them, only to have that innocence desecrated in the next four bars by jarring synths, glitchy 'percussion' and crunching bass, a reassuringly Tobin-esque trait. Foley Room, as much as I enjoyed it, seems like a warm-up compared to the sound Amon has generated to create this album. It is beautiful, melodic and complex, but jarring, meandering and frustrating in equal measure. Just when you think there should be a thunderous breakbeat coming in, nothing happens, but we'd be expecting that. There is so much going on at times, it sounds like each individual sound is trying to get your attention or trying to escape, like a fight for natural selection.
This album, more than ever before, truly feels like the album Tobin has been wanting to make for his entire career and the departure we all knew would come. It feels like we are getting closer to his musical psyche and I think this album could well be the biggest crossroads for his fans. ISAM is totally unrestrained and indulgent and tracks ooze with potential, but there are times where it feels like Amon needs reigning in and be reminded that humans will be listening to this album. Those people who live and breathe Autechre won't have a problem, but this is impenetrable music for someone looking to get into the electronic genre. Best not to start here, then. Try Supermodified instead.
ISAM lacks a distinct beat and rhythm, a hallmark of almost all AT albums, which could well be a problem for some fans. Those wanting jazz, drum and bass or a beat to nod their heads to could be disappointed, but that is not to say they definitely will be. Even 'Breaking Protocol', on his most recent release to date, sounds a world away from this. ISAM sounds very separate from Tobin's prior work as it feels like an album as a whole rather than a collection of tracks. It was easy to make a compilation album of tracks from his first 4 albums, but to listen to a track from ISAM next to anything else almost seems wrong. Times have changed, Amon has changed, and for his music to go in this new direction, a decade and a half into his career, is very exciting.
For his long-time fans, this album is going to feel different, even for a Tobin record. But fear not, if you're missing the beats, there's more Two Fingers material on the way. Anyone who bought the Ninja Tune XX album will have heard Fools Rhythm and will know Amon hasn't given the beats up just yet.
But right now I am loving ISAM. It sounds like nothing else, and after listening to it repeatedly for the last few weeks I am still finding it hard to fathom. Roll on the next 15 years.