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.






Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.