Amon Tobin doesn’t just create music – he builds entire sonic galaxies. His music isn’t necessarily meant as background sound, much less something to dance to or hum along with; it’s like a soundtrack to an eerie, broken world. While lots of electronic instrumental music seems hell-bent on simulating gleaming perfection, Tobin’s universe is a cracked one, and an oddly human one at that.
With Fear in a Handful of Dust, Tobin’s first album in eight years – the long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed ISAM – there’s a haunting “found sound” approach to his conflating of synthetics and samples. On “Freeformed”, for example, the whirring and clinking seem to ape the awakening of some mechanical robot/beast hybrid. The result is more in line with haunting sound effects than what the average music listener might regard as traditionally executed “music”. But that works to Tobin’s advantage; it allows him the opportunity to partake in a type of world-building, where there are no standards and no expectations.
On the album’s opener, “On a Hilltop Sat the Moon” (released well in advance of the album proper), clusters of notes that sound like a mix of Fender Rhodes and thumb piano tumble out of the track, while an icy synth backdrop reins it all in. There’s something decidedly unsettling about the soundscapes Tobin conjures up, but it also provides an oddly comforting warmth – particularly with retro touchstones like Leslie speaker cabinet effects. Tobin seems to trust that the listener will accept this brave universe.
On “Vipers Follow You”, the potent mix of low chants and synth layers work exceptionally well with the percussive tabla-like beat that scurries all over the track and is another beautiful example of new and old sounds creating a unique listening experience. On “Heart of the Sun”, Tobin is content to let the track act as a sort of giant machine, all futuristic blips and waves of sound, moving at a glacial pace while mimicking an intimidating slab of technology. If the everyday electronic objects that populate our daily life could emote and attempt to create music, it would probably sound an awful lot like Fear in a Handful of Dust.
All these descriptions of cold technology and robotic interfaces may imply that there’s a lack of emotion on Fear in a Handful of Dust. Far from it. If anything, the sounds that Tobin wrests from instruments old and new create an unusual emotional experience, be it sadness, reflection, even transcendence. “Velvet Owl”, for instance, is a strangely moving track with a deep, chest-vibrating synth figure loping along in a waltz tempo while stacks of keyboard lines float along the top of the whole thing, as if the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey had a love theme. Additionally, the fuzzy chords in “Fooling Alright” start and stop in an awkward, playful manner, moving alongside effects-drenched vocal lines like a warm, intimate musical collaboration between Wendy Carlos and Björk.
By the time Fear in a Handful of Dust concludes with the spacy, alien hum of “Dark as Dogs” – in which Tobin once again combines dark electronic blips with an ethereal chorus – the listener’s been taken on a strange, interstellar voyage. But it’s one that is much more multifaceted and emotionally dense than a lot of like-minded artists produce. Amon Tobin is a master of creating a chilling, deeply felt musical experience, and anyone who tends to turn a blind eye to electronic music should approach this wonderful album with an open mind. It’s time well-spent.