Amon Tobin: ISAM

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.

Amon Tobin


Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2011-05-24
UK Release Date: 2011-05-23

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.