Traditionally the whole of an artist’s activity is a sum of various parts. You write an album, you record an album, you get on the road and tour to promote that album, and eventually you get to go home and start the process all over again. And while I’m sure that in part the same is true for Amon Tobin, it at least appeared that in 2011 he was working on one complete project, a feat of joined up thinking where each piece was as important as the others.
‘ISAM’ was announced in February, causing the kind of excitement news of any new Amon Tobin album creates, but as time went on it became apparent that ‘ISAM’ was not just an album. It was launched with an art installation by Tessa Farmer, who created the album’s artwork. Nestled in the crypt of St Pancras Church in London, it expanded the images from the record sleeve into a full insect battle scene – created with real (dead) posed insects and animal bones hanging from the ceiling, with smaller scenes dotted around the dark tunnels. All the while, music from the ‘ISAM’ album rattled off the brickwork, lending further creepiness to an already unsettling atmosphere.
The music and the art complemented each other perfectly. Farmer’s installation, despite being organic in its source materials, felt somewhat unnatural. Meanwhile, Tobin’s music on the ‘ISAM’ album sounds industrial and heavily electronic, though many of the sounds contained within it come from samples of acoustic instruments and field recordings.
The album itself is a mix of sound design and an innovative view of electronic music. Often very mechanical sounding, it also has a surprisingly warm feel throughout much of it. Sounds are used in unusual ways to create a record that sounds like no other. Even when Tobin makes an attempt at creating dubstep on ‘Goto 10′, it ends up twisted into a new, monstrous, robotic form. The record is a triumph of Tobin’s continued development over the last fifteen years, not so much leading the way as cutting his own path and leaving behind obstacles to hinder any followers.
And that’s even more true when you factor in the ‘ISAM’ live show. For his 2005 ‘Chaos Theory’ tour, Tobin began performing with a self-built Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound speaker system. This year he added visuals to the mix.
Live projections have been a staple of live music for some time now, of course. But when Amon Tobin premiered his ‘ISAM’ show in Montreal in June, he took things to a whole new level. Performing inside a huge blocky structure, backlighting reveals the producer at work at its centre at various points in the show, but mostly he remains hidden and the visuals fill the audience’s view. Through the magic of technology and design, the huge arrangement of cubes appears to move and change shape, becoming machinery, then filled with smoke, and then a surface on which a virtual Tobin manipulates streams of light, and all of this locked into the precise, industrial sounds of the ‘ISAM’ album.
And at times it looks like it’s not actually there, just something you imagined, thanks to the incredible precision of the projections and the amazing skill that has gone into creating them.
Watching the show at The Forum in London last month was a jaw-dropping experience. It was one of the most visually amazing performances I have ever seen. And it was more than just visual, thanks to deep bursts of bass knocking the wind out of me at regular intervals.
Each piece of this ‘ISAM’ puzzle creates a fully merged whole, rather than a collection of things that can be easily taken apart.
You can watch a short behind the scenes documentary about the making of the ‘ISAM’ live show here – and see it in action below.
Find more of CMU’s ten Artists Of The Year here.