[4 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“I always saw a divide between music that was based purely on sound design and tunes that were written to physically move people. A challenge for me has been to try and make ‘tunes’ using aspects of sound design normally associated with highbrow academic studies in this area. I don’t know how successful I’ve been but that was a goal anyway.” – Amon Tobin, in his MySpace blog.
A Picture Worth a Thousand Beats: The Early Years
The roots of electronic music are planted in the theoretical and experimental camps of early 20th century composers. Edgard Varèse, Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, and the like were primarily concerned with sound as sound rather than pure notation, expanding beyond tonality and traditional song structure with the aid of technological advances. Then, somewhere between Kraftwerk in the early ‘70s, disco in the late ‘70s, and the Madchester rave scene in the late ‘80s, electronic music became synonymous with ‘dance’ music. While not credited with the creation of a genre, Amon Tobin has sought to unite these two dichotomous sides of electronic music, to satisfy both the dancing feet and the theoretical minds of audiences worldwide. Tobin’s contributions to forms such as trip-hop, drum & bass, acousmatic, and video game music cannot be considered anything less than a complete success.
Like his music, Tobin came from scattered origins. Born in Brazil in 1972, his family started a whirlwind tour of relocation after his second birthday, including stays in Morocco, Portugal, Madeira Island, London, and the Netherlands. Eventually, around the time he graduated from high school, he set up shop in Brighton.
Kraftwerk - Numbers (Computer World, 1981)
Tobin’s early musical tastes were as varied as his residences. Though he had no formal music training, he developed an infatuation with the blues as a teen and performed on the streets as a busker. In university, while he was supposed to be studying photography, his interest in music persisted, though his blues-based focus shifted dramatically upon discovering his new favorite instrument: the sampler. In his third year at university he received a positive response for his sample-based recordings from NINEBARecords. He dropped out shortly thereafter to focus on his recording, and subsequently issued a small selection of EPs and 12-inches under the moniker of Cujo in the mid-‘90s. Many of those tracks ended up on Tobin’s debut album Adventures In Foam, released by NINEBAR in 1996.
Although the NINEBAR pressing only numbered five thousand, Adventures In Foam caught the ear of Coldcut, the heads of influential London label Ninja Tune. Signed under his own name, Tobin produced two more albums in quick succession. Bricolage appeared in 1997 and Permutation in 1998, both to widespread critical acclaim. Around this time, two important electronica movements were peaking: trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass.
Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Scene
The term “trip-hop” was not coined until 1994, when, in the June issue of UK magazine Mixmag, music journalist Andy Pemberton described a single by DJ Shadow as such. However, the genre had been building steam for years by then. The groundwork for trip-hop was laid in large part through the development of American hip-hop in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
DJs created the hip-hop beat by looping drum breaks from jazz, funk, rock, and disco records. The more popular of these breaks, such as those from “The Funky Drummer” by James Brown and “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band, would go on to appear in dozens of tracks. Though forms of sampling were among the oldest forms of electroacoustic music, with movements such as music concrète and artists like Joe Meek and The Beatles incorporating samples in the ‘60s, hip-hop marked the introduction of entirely sample based music into the mainstream.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock (Planet Rock: The Album, 1982)
In 1981, “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” became the first charting record made exclusively from other records. Music such as Cybotron’s 1983 album Enter, Afrika Bambaataa’s Kraftwerk sampling “Planet Rock” from 1982, and the unreleased 1982 track “Party Machine” by Canadian techno legend Bruce Haack with Russell Simmons (who appears before he co-founded Def Jam with Rick Rubin) signaled that a massive change was afoot. Coldcut’s remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” in 1987 solidified the connection between electronic and rap music, a connection previously hinted at by pioneering electro producers.
Also known as the Bristol sound, trip-hop bubbled out from UK DJs enamored by hip-hop’s signature scratching and sampling, as well as the synthesis and programming of downtempo house. Massive Attack’s Blue Lines from 1991 is widely considered the first true album in the genre, cracking the top 10 in the UK charts, spiritually followed by Dummy, the 1994 Mercury Prize winning retro cinematic debut of Portishead. These albums, and the slew that followed, slowed down breakbeats from the hip-hop standard 80-90 beats per minute to under 70bpm, focused on atmospheric production, and often featured sultry post-lounge singers rather than rappers.
Portishead - Sour Times (Dummy, 1994)
Drum and bass also took a great deal of inspiration from hip-hop, which was as much an influence on the fusion genre as reggae and jazz. As early as the late ‘80s, London area producers incorporated sampled breakbeaks with the technology that produced the typical British house sound. However, instead of going the blunted, mellow route trip-hop pursued, they sped up the tempo to 130bpm and eventually over 160bpm, while often embracing the bravado of rap lyricism.
Initial variations were labeled with such menacing terms as hardcore [a distinct genre precursor] and jungle [which came to represent more ragga influenced tracks]. Eventually, drum and bass became a widely accepted umbrella term. More than any other, the drum break from “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons became the defining sample of the genre, simply known as the Amen break.
Early albums in the genre, like Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era’s Flowers In My Garden LP in 1993, found a cult audience amidst a flurry of likeminded singles, but drum and bass remained underground much longer than trip-hop. As some major names started to rise, it established itself in the mainstream by the mid-‘90s. Goldie’s progressive jungle opus Timeless crossed over in 1995, clearing the way for Roni Size/Reprazent to win the Mercury Prize in 1997 with the lively [but ultimately repetitive] New Forms.
Roni Size/Reprazent - Brown Paper Bag (New Forms, 1997)
Clean Up Your Act: Adventures In Foam
This confluence and comingling of influences provided the breeding ground that spawned Tobin’s debut album Adventures In Foam. Granted, the album showed signs of a young man learning his way around a studio and the increasingly impressive sampler technology, but his style was immediately apparent. Like “Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel”, Tobin’s early albums were made entirely from prerecorded music, largely discovered on dusty vinyl records.
For years, Tobin worked without microphones, exclusively using vinyl samples as source material. The obligatory pops and clicks that accompany vinyl playback were consistently present in his works. Unlike Grandmaster Flash, however, Tobin’s treatment of the samples was not based in turntablist scratching. He employed extensive studio processing and sequencing, treating samples so intensely as to leave the vast majority of them virtually unrecognizable.
Cujo - Cat People (Adventures In Foam, 1996)
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)