Recreational users beware: claustrophobic and frustrating, is the new Amon Tobin album worth the risk?
For many people growing up in the 90s Aphex Twin and Amon Tobin were respectively our Beatles and Stones. One noted for changing what music was about with a handful of releases, the other, starting from a more purist setting, created album after album, each more individual than the last and guiding people further and further onward into the possibilities of tonal expression. While, Aphex Twin’s output has diminished largely over the last ten years Amon Tobin’s seems to be getting increasingly exciting, experimental and vital. His latest offering Isam is not as instantly familiar as his breakbeat jazz based earlier work, nor as rhythmically accessible as either unalloyed Tour-de-force Foley Room or his Two Fingers releases. In fact, it’s probably one of the most self indulgent records you’re likely to hear this year.
At worst some of the tracks on the release border on boring; anodyne tinkles and reworked field recordings, twisted bass rumbles border on arrhythmic, child toy samples and starkly distorted vocals reminiscent of The Orb, seem all in all to pass each other by without locking into a solid sense of momentum. There are moments on tracks like Wooden Toy and Kitty Cat where you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to a Cafe Del Kiddie compilation track.
What were my expectations? Did I expect more of the same from Amon Tobin? The same breaks orientated abstractions twisted further out? Sure I did, why wouldn’t I? Reading through some of the press it seems he’s attempting to create something new from post-processed field recordings. We’re told ‘This is NEW music’. We’re not supposed to listen to the album like we did the others, this one is something else. Isam supposes an appreciation of music concrete, dada-esque sound art and a willingness to throw expectations aside and enjoy it for what it is.
The problem here is that I don’t want to. I don’t really want to listen to just anything, no matter how well it’s produced, I want to listen to something emotively interesting and satisfying. Isam refuses to cater to any of these considerations and for everything I don’t like about it, am consistently frustrated by, find ephemeral and borderline inane, I can’t stop listening to the damn thing.
Isam is a grandiose vision that remains slightly out of focus. At its heart is a teasing sense of melody and rhythm that draws the listener but keeps them impatiently wanting. During the first several listens you keep getting the sense that you’re listening to powerful introductions to the most epic songs ever recorded. The frustration sets in when the songs never actually develop. Nowhere is this more evident that on Journeyman which promises much but never lifts with the ear’s expectation. This is followed by Piece of Paper, where again we’re teased with an evocative three note melody, that begs for completion and elevation but never actually delivers. Goto 10 finally locks the album into a groove of sorts and just when the bassline eventually starts playing within the swinging 4/8 time it all too soon dissipates into an outro of quiet strings. To the album’s credit it maintains a fierce tension throughout but without the use of what is traditionally considered the ‘hat’ and ‘snare’ parts to the rhythmic programming it feels weird and unresponsive.
It’s important to emphasise that the album is not without a great degree of merit. Isam is testament to a powerfully creative technician at work and elements will likely appear in other, perhaps lesser, artists works in the coming years but on its own, outside of being an ‘Amon Tobin’ record, I’m not sure there is enough here to risk prolonged exposure.
On the final track Dropped from the Sky we are treated to a finale that conjures Sgt. Peppers, complete with vocal suggestions of ‘La-la-la-la’ choruses of sorts and developed melodic sections. The heightened psychedelia of the whimsical second half of the album finally comes to a close and with the strained heart of a junkie you feel forced to reset the blunt needle and play Isam again.
I’m not sure why anyone should start listening to this album really. Recreational users beware, I’ve feverishly listened to Isam at least 30 times in the last 3 days and through the melodic frustration, rhythmic angst, soul searching and missed opportunities I’ve come to resent it, resentment bordering on self loathing actually.
Maybe just one more last listen and then I’ll have it forever… it’s what Mr Richards would want.
Out now on http://ninjatune.net/.