The Album Blueprint
The first two tracks on Foam present the two styles present throughout the album. The opening cut “Cat People” is trip-hop incarnate, pitting a slow “Funky Drummer” like loop and slick bassline against a slick jazz horn, plucked strings, and electric guitar. A filtered, panning drone in the track provides part of the eeriness usually expressed through a Theremin in Portishead recordings, combined with the vinyl static that creates a sense of anachronistic nostalgia and, in the trip-hop context, foreboding.
Photo (partial) by © Paul Labont
“Cat People” is followed by the higher bpm of “North Star”. “North Star” is a clear example of mid-‘90s drum and bass, and similar to a passacaglia. Consistency is alternatively provided by a slinky electric bass which morphs into a backwards string sample, and then appears along side it. These loops persist through much of the piece, aside from the breakdowns, acting as a ground bass over which Tobin’s intricate sample dissections become the focus. Whereas in “Cat People”, the drum loop was used in a stable role, leaving variety to be drawn from the plethora of other samples in the overall texture, in “North Star” the drum loop takes a leading role in the piece. It is diced, filtered, and rearranged into new patterns, only taking a back seat to a couple echoed synthetic samples and a brief vocal from a 1986 anime adaptation of the comic Fist of the North Star.
These two tracks establish the blueprint for the album, settling into a one-two punch of jazz infected trip-hop and skittering Drum and Bass. The hot-boxed opium den romp “Fat Ass Joint”, with its signature vocal hook lifted from Dr. Dre’s seminal 1992 gangsta rap album The Chronic, and the slow thug bump “Ol’ Bunkhouse” lead to “Paris Streatham”, “A Vida”, and “Traffic”. The latter three cuts reflected the emerging sinister, atmospheric, science fiction influenced style of jungle known as techstep, a subgenre formed in response to the clean, happy, vocal- heavy, house-influenced drum and bass that was garnering mainstream acceptance.
Cujo - The Sighting (Adventures In Foam, 1996)
The album also revealed Tobin’s influence by, and interest in, films. The most notable example, “The Sighting” uses more than one vocal sample from the 1969 counter-culture classic Easy Rider.
The track is also significant for a buzzing sound that, if not an actual fly, is damn close, which points to his increased interest in sound EFX and his more obvious science fiction influence. Interestingly, “The Sighting” also contains a layer that sounds like a berimbau [a single musical bow] sample with a wah-wah on it. The use of the berimbau marks one of the few major instances of noticeable Brazilian musical influence on the album, though hints of samba are also heard in “The Brazilianaire” (a track released on a bonus disk with the 2002 Ninja Tune repressing of Adventures In Foam) and the short “Reefs…(Interval).”
The production value of Adventures In Foam was far from flawless, however. The tape hum that accompanied the Fist Of The North Star sample is a noticeable example. What’s more, most of the tracks have a fairly predictable, step-wise progression.
Cujo - Traffic (Adventures In Foam, 1996)
Still, that didn’t stop Ryan Schreiber [founder of Pitchfork Media] from praising Tobin’s work on the album as being comparable to the likes of Big Beat leaders The Chemical Brothers. And the palate Tobin drew from for this record would go on to define and inform his more rhythmically complex and diverse future works.
Globetrotting Brazilianaire: Bricolage & Permutation
Tobin’s second album, Bricolage, was released by Ninja Tune in 1997. Around the time of its recording, Tobin started playing live shows. The majority of the material he presented was either composed by him or modified from another artist’s catalogue, affording him the opportunity to field test tracks, to see what worked most effectively on a dancefloor.
Between Bricolage and 1998’s Permutation, his music became exponentially more complex from a rhythmic, processing, and mixing point of view. His samples became crystal clear and precise, the layering more dynamic and dense, and more of his world music and film influences began to emerge.
Amon Tobin - Nova (Permutation, 1998)
From Bricolage, the monkey-like cuica, agogo, and tribal samba drums from “Chomp Samba” and the bossa nova guitar on “One Day In My Garden” showed the presence of Latin American music. “Nightlife” opens on a prohibition-era piano dirge and progresses to a main melody carried by a flute lifted from Ravel’s “Bolero” that resolves to Disney-esque pop orchestra chords, bookmarked by a rising female vocal line similar to that from the original Star Trek theme. The upright bass and clave rhythm just over three minutes in to “Nightlife” could be an allusion to Cuban son or salsa [often mistakenly called “rhumba” by North Americans]. Obviously, “Nova” from Permutation also has a bossa touch to it.
In addition to world music, Tobin’s cinematic influences persisted, and Permutation is notable for containing several references to esteemed filmmaker David Lynch. The opening “Like Regular Chickens” contains a vocal sample from Lynch’s 1976 film Eraserhead. Also, the title “People Like Frank” is a line from Blue Velvet, while the song itself contains a sample of Angelo Badalamenti’s score for the film.
Amon Tobin - Nightlife (Permutation, 1998)
For evidence of Tobin’s artistic growth in this period, one need only compare the rolling, intricate drum programming in the latter half of “People Like Frank” to that from any of the drum and bass tracks on Adventures In Foam. The level of sophistication evolved from a comparatively gruff cut-&-paste pastiche to an ornate mesh so vivid and bubbly that it sounds almost organic. Even looking at the different manipulations of the Amen break in “Creatures” and “One Small Step” from Bricolage is revealing, one taking the break into hot jazz territory and the other firmly planting it in bass heavy jungle.
Stylistically, in these two albums, Tobin’s sound progressed to a point where his songs did not fall cleanly into specific genre classification. Aside from the odd sample, Tobin’s style of trip-hop was without vocals, lacking the female lead singer that defined the early work of Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps, and Lamb, and influenced pop chanteuses like Goldfrapp, Esthero, Dido, and Sia. He also sonically drew from a more obscure and exotic palate, similar to the underrated Les Baxter vein of experimental lounge sound collage work by Tipsy, who toyed with the definition of trip-hop on their 1996 debut Trip Tease.
“Yasawas” from Bricolage is a good example of this newfound genre elusiveness. For that track, Tobin utilized a panning slide guitar that affords a clearly tropical feel, and layered this with a similarly panning, often faint electric piano-like loop to complete the unsettling but thick ambience of the piece. Meanwhile, the drum samples are awash in so much echo and filtering that it borders on drum and bass at times, while leaving the other sections with an ambiguous rhythm. The drumming on “People Like Frank” similarly places that composition at a crossroads, too frantic and intense for trip-hop yet too ambient and low-key for drum and bass.
At the precise time when trip-hop and jungle were at their peak, the market flooded with also-rans and copycats rushing to capitalize on the watered down aspects of these sounds. Yet Tobin committed to pushing his limits in the studio, regardless of where it took him. Though he did not win any awards for the effort, he quickly became Ninja Tune’s best selling international artist, and gained the respect of critics and academics in the process.
Amon Tobin - Yasawas (Bricolage, 1997)