[7 March 2007]
Amon Tobin closed out the last millennium with a series of three definitive albums of dense, lush drum’n'bass. In 1997, Bricolage introduced the style, all fluidly jazz-informed percussion thrashing from within a sheen of reverb and hi-hats and steeped in bits of atmospheric film score. The next year, Tobin further developed his sound on Permutations, with a deeper use of melodic content and a more convincingly “live” drum programming style. Finally, 2000’s Supermodified completed the trifecta with a set of moody instrumental textures and clamorous breakbeats like extended jazz solos, all seamlessly integrated from now-unrecognizable vinyl sources. It’s not so much that all three records were flawless (indeed, at first I found it difficult to travel back from Permutations to Bricolage), but that each offered so strong a vision, such a natural progression from the album preceding it, such inarguable evidence of sheer technical prowess. After an ascent like that, any follow-up would seem disappointing. And they were—2002’s Out from Out Where, shed drum’n'bass for hip-hop inflections, feeling rather emptier for it, and 2005’s soundtrack for the game Splinter Cell III, though offering a few quintessential tracks, often revealed its nature as a backdrop for onscreen action. And as such, the widening release gap ached all the more sharply.
This could be the make-or-break point. A full five years since the last “official”, non-soundtrack album, the Brazilian sound-scientist has re-surfaced with Foley Room, an album boldly forgoing reliance on samples for an additional assortment of live instrumentation and field recordings. Such an album could have ended up overly academic and self-involved, more interested in sound-sourcing than creating the sort of visceral momentum that marked past albums. Or it could have simply drifted out into pure atmospherics and experiments in musique conrète, which could have been interesting, but perhaps disappointing given Tobin’s resume. Fortunately, Foley Room falls into neither of these traps, sounding, even 7 years later, like a smooth, natural progression from Supermodified.
Dubious of the utility of, say, field-recorded zoo lions, as anything more than garnish in a Tobin trip-hop track? Witness “Big Furry Head”, where plucked minor strings and a stark clatter of drums gain a deadly focus and tension from the incorporation of a crisp selection of snarls and rumbles. Rather than simply sitting atop the other elements, these sounds are nestled perfectly into the beat. The track is a single animal and you can practically hear the sinews coiling before the killing leap. Do you, likewise, expect sampled motorcycle engines to be nothing more than kitschy Easy Rider nostalgia? That’s because you’ve never heard one hammered and re-pitched into the shape of the grinding bassline in “Esther’s”, a track with so much raw horsepower (unfortunately not entirely harnessed by the lock-step drum break) that it makes me wonder what would happen if the old dnb standby of Hoover bass was supplanted by Harley bass. These are field recordings at their most viscerally involved, built into their tracks from the ground up.
Throughout Foley Room, melodies are just as well-integrated. Tobin’s past work is perhaps most striking for its ability to meld disparate parts in a completely convincing manner, regardless of source, and the addition of new sources in no way lessens this effect. While live musicians aren’t an entirely new inclusion (the Splinter Cell soundtrack actually involved the orchestrations of several), the addition receives a more proper unveiling here: opener “Bloodstone” is a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, whose past work includes work with minimalist classical composers like Steve Reich, and Clint Mansel’s soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream. Here, the quartet’s scrapes and sweeps of melody weave thick textures around Tobin’s snatches of piano and verb-washed orchestration, even holding their own against the collapsing factory of percussive noise that eventually attempts to inundate them.
I could go on. “The Killer’s Vanilla” is a taut collection of overdriven organs that eventually allows the drums their long-awaited full velocity, while “Kitchen Sink” is just that, cobbling a near-unidentifiable array of objects into an odd cut and paste exercise that seems to be constantly throwing off bits of cutlery, sticks, and creaking doors—anything, apparently, but actual instruments. Closer “At the End of the Day”, with it’s own collection of strings, atmospherics, and intensely satisfying sprawl of percussion, serves as an effective mirror to the introductory majesty of “Bloodstone”. With the exception of a few more ambient numbers and the generally restrained tempos, which may frustrate fans of the first two albums hoping for a more stable drum’n'bass foundation, there’s little to complain about here. And even the decision to slow down a bit seems well-founded: even at a shambling pace, the rhythm section is unusually packed with clangs, rattles, and shatters, details which might have to be shed to sustain a faster clip. This sort of rhythmic collage has been attempted often in electronic music, but rarely on anything approaching this scale.
A Foley room is a devoted chamber for sound creation for broadcast, a place where the crack of a baton hitting celery is transformed into a kung-fu-broken tibia. The problems of isolating sound in the real world render such efforts necessary, but they disappear behind the magician’s curtain when we view the finished product. With Foley Room, Amon Tobin has performed a similar act of magicianship, building evocative music from everything within his reach, except that he invites us to scrutinize the exposed sounds whenever possible. The magic, here, is in the unveiling. An unveiling, gratifyingly, which will go on for many, many listens.