Amon Tobin, ISAM

Joe Muggs

By Joe Muggs

on 04.20.11 in Reviews

If Amon Tobin has not had the critical attention of some of his contemporaries, it's perhaps something to do with his slightly unclear identity in the late-'90s beginning of his career. Existing somewhere between scenes, he was weirder than drum'n'bass, less wilfully awkward than Squarepusher-style avant-garde rave, more cerebral than the breakbeat sound of Adam Freeland, Tipper et al — yet incorporated elements of all of these into his productions. Not that he was likely to be bothered about categorisation: He was quickly signed to Ninja Tune, a haven for mavericks, and indeed quickly became one of the most popular artists on the label.

A staggering degree of technical expertise needn’t mean inaccessible music for dorks

More recently, though, he's truly come into his own. With every release, particularly since his 2005 Splinter Cell game soundtrack, he's seemed less and less hewn to the breaks of '90s rave and moved more into ultra-high definition sound design — although still with a club DJ's sense of the need for immediacy. So with ISAM it really seems he's as much avant-garde composer as he is electronica producer. There are beats here that an adventurous DJ could make use of, certainly — "Morning Ms Candis" has a swing-jazz rhythm, "Bedtime Stories" is something in the vicinity of dubstep, and "Goto 10" suggests an unholy collaboration of Flying Lotus and The Prodigy. But in fact it seems he's more comfortable the more abstract he gets, with the absolute boinging lunacy of "Mass & Spring" sounding like the soundtrack to some ninth dimension Warner Bros cartoon, and the utterly gorgeous "Lost & Found" coming over like the dreams of a benevolent artificial intelligence.

Sometimes the degree of detail on these tracks can get almost painful to process all at once, and occasionally there's a machismo to the barrage of soundsystem-testing frequencies that make you wish Tobin would just sit down into something a little less impressive but more groovy. These moments, though, are rare: throughout, there are luscious soundscapes, delightful flights of fancy and — I kid you not — laugh-out-loud funny twists. All-in-all, it's an album that shows that a staggering degree of technical expertise needn't mean inaccessible music for dorks, but can create music that is intense, moving, and above all fun.