After four years of work, Amon Tobin returns with the most forward-thinking electronic album you're likely to hear for quite some time: the stunning ISAM.
Someone leaked ISAM on April 14. Who cares, right? Every album leaks, some way ahead of "schedule", others close to the actual release date. Who cares if ISAM comes with a remarkably elaborate packaging and art book to supplant the music with appropriate and necessary visual stimuli? Who cares if there's an ISAM installation from May 26 - June 5 in London to coincide with the album's physical release? Who cares if Amon Tobin embarks on a groundbreaking live tour that also coincides with the album's physical release? Who cares if Tobin and visual artist Terry Farmer worked on this project for years? And, of course, who cares if that leak was somewhere around 192 kbps?
Ninja Tune was phased by the leak, but not crippled. They pushed up the digital release by over a month and gave Tobin's audience what they wanted: a high quality download of the best electronic album of the year. Then Amon Tobin provided a track-by-track commentary of the album on Soundcloud. Ninja Tune lashed out at the anonymous critic who leaked the album, but responded in the best way possible: they forged on. Collective listening experiences are nearly impossible in the contemporary music landscape. Only one band can claim that right, and they proved their stature again last February with The King of Limbs.
Enough side notes, however. Bells, whistles, confetti cannons and streamers only go so far. After the storm settles, the music matters most.
In 2007, Amon Tobin released Foley Room, an album that consisted entirely of foley sound captured by Tobin and a team of assistants. The team recorded nearly everything they came across (from the typical conversation to more obscure sounds like ants eating grass (whatever that means)). Listening to the album is still a jarring experience. Tobin took hundreds of unrelated samples and smashed, wove, stapled, glued and nailed them together into an architecture of sound. It was an interesting project that took dedicated listening and a strong attention span, but it lacked the precision and clear-headed direction Amon Tobin was known for, almost as if he was a kid let loose in FAO Schwartz.
Well, Amon Tobin has returned with a proper follow-up to Foley Room. In short, ISAM has the direction Foley Room lacked. Tobin returned to the toy store, only this time his goal was to blow it up, then put it back together. The result? I can't answer that question. ISAM is too complex. The album's first 15 minutes are an assault on the ears. I replayed the "Journeyman", "Piece of Paper", "Goto 10" and "Surge" sequence for hours before moving to the album's stunning center sweep of songs.
So much sound happens every second of every song that it's difficult not to root into a particular synth (the haunting soldier handclap in "Mass & Spring"), or a song's bridge-like outro (the nosediving airplane, rocking chair, spring synths of "Journeyman" that melt into an airy synth before succumbing to a rising tsunami of glitch and bass), just to peel each layer apart, to hear each melody rise in the mix then fall, allowing room for another to shine. It's masterful, and a wonder the album's not a complete train-wreck. For all the seemingly random synths Tobin employs and manipulates, this album should be awful. There isn't any music happening. This is merely sound; but manipulated just so to lend it melody, harmony, structure and temper.
Of course, after the initial shock wears off, ISAM's true colors start showing: its hyper, moody, solemn, humble, egotistic and -- above all else -- digressive; digressive in the David Foster Wallace camp of digressive behavior: ISAM's final 13 minutes are a digression of a particular sample that creeps into the mix on "Journeyman", almost 30 minutes prior. Tobin winds around the sample, delays it, flanges it, wobbles it, chops it up, lays it bare bones at one point, drags it to the bottom of the ocean (much like he does on "Journeyman"), lifts it into space, then sails back home on it into the album's closing minute as if he were the spaceman version of Odysseus somewhere between escaping the Cyclops and avoiding the Sirens.
Then there's the ghost vocals that wrap around "Piece of Paper", "Wooden Toy" and "Kitty Cat" like smoke, never smothering the songs but always touching and surrounding them. The guitar plucked outro of "Lost & Found". The stereo-panning static in "Night Swim" and the return to the cinematic sweep of opener "Journeyman" with the denoument, "Dropped from the Sky".
More than any other electronic producer of the past decade, Amon Tobin's music goes places. From start to finish, ISAM is an adventure through sound and actuated potential. Once the final mix of synths plink into silence, you've travelled from the bottom of the ocean into deep space, inside a car engine, through jungles, deserts, the human body, machines, the living, the dead and everywhere in between. Who cares if it leaked? This thing is eternal.