Is there any reason to attend a live DJ-set? That was the question that kept springing to mind while watching Amon Tobin’s striking new show, the (supposedly) first-ever show by a DJ in surround sound.
26 Mar 2005: Corona Theatre Montreal, Canada
I should have been in ecstasy; the set encompassed his great earlier material and his new music from the Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory soundtrack. It’s music that seems perfect for a live setting. The surround sound was truly innovative; each instrument, flowing through his turntables, sounded crystal clear and seemed to emanate from a different part of the room.
The light and smoke show paralleled the Splinter Cell theme well. The green lasers bore similarity to superspy Sam Fisher’s night vision goggles, and the frantic beats resembled the white-knuckle action of the game, which has you creeping through some of the world’s most heavily guarded buildings. But the question remains, was it really necessary to attend the show live? Why, despite the fact that I was thoroughly enjoying the music, was I frequently glancing at my watch?
I can’t help but think back to the most entertaining DJ-set I ever saw, Kid Koala’s aptly-titled “Short Attention Span Theatre”. It was there that Kid K laid out his 95 theses on live DJ shows. He felt that regular DJ shows were too boring and lacked the interaction with the crowd that a normal instrument/singer combo takes as a given. He wanted the DJ-set to be more than just some guy standing in front of his kit. His solution at the time was to hold a bingo tournament halfway through the show, slideshows, monologues and scratch-offs with P-Love. While this was ideal for a scratch DJ, Amon Tobin could not benefit from his labelmate’s suggestions.
Based on the innovative ideas of Amon Tobin’s set, it was evident he wanted to shake up the proceedings his own way. The surround sound was a good start. The speakers were placed along the corners of the room, audience standing in the middle. Amon’s new soundtrack to the Montreal-developed game provided most of the night’s highlights. Since the soundtrack is being released for 5.1 systems, the material was likely made with surround sound in mind; each song was remarkably dense and heavily atmospheric.
Unsuspecting fans were likely caught off-guard by the sounds of crashing metal or heavy rainfall that would surreptitiously emerge from the back speakers. Spies like Sam Fisher require eyes in the backs of their heads; Amon Tobin fans need an extra pair of ears. Walk from one corner of the room to the other and you would experience an altogether different concert. The many subwoofers along the floor could have also reduced a poorly built structure to rubble, but in this case provided a constant wall-shaking bass line.
The problem is, despite the great new material and the fantastic sound quality, Amon decided to go the route of Miles Davis and shield himself from the audience. Perhaps it was the extension of the spy theme, but Amon Tobin had the lights directed at the audience and not at his turntables. For a DJ this is especially ill advised since part of the entertainment value is to watch him use his numerous tools of the trade to recreate his albums. This way, with only a shadow lurking on stage, it felt as though it were just another Saturday night at the club, which is a shame since there were times that the music became so complex that it would have been nice to see him scramble from record to record.
Another problem that mires the DJ-set is the relentless outburst of music that occurs, in this case over a two-hour period. As ardent a music fan as one can be, two hours of constant beats and never-ending crescendos can become overwhelming. At one point concentrating on the music becomes impossible because the brain is simply incapable of absorbing so many beats without respite. Keep in mind this is coming from someone who has no intention of dancing, but my ilk appeared to be in the majority on this night.
The sad truth is, those who really want to dance would rather pay the cover charge at some trendy club and move to the musical styling of a house DJ and his thirty-minute remix of Darude’s “Sandstorm”. Those who choose to pay twenty-five dollars to see Amon Tobin are fans of the music and in this case they paid to witness Amon as a hardly-visible spectre on stage. Amon is purely a victim of circumstance since he was flawless and his old material, especially Supermodified‘s “4 Ton Mantis”, got a rowdy reception from the knowledgeable crowd.
Even stranger was that Tobin’s encore actually gave me hope that DJ-shows can in fact offer an experience different than just listening to the albums. His last two songs were played with the house lights up, providing the crowd their first view of Amon, and what we saw was the DJ super-charge a few guitar samples with his usual danceable beats. It was the melding of hard rock and frenzied machine-made percussion that only a DJ could create on stage, and served as a promise of hope for future DJ shows, that is, given that you can see them.