Isam, and 2007’s Foley Room before it, have seen Brazilian maestro Amon Tobin evolve far beyond the smorgasbord of influences – jungle, trip-hop, electronic and even a bit of samba to name a few – that coursed throughout his early albums. His latest record shuns the big beats that have been the foundation of his understated career, and replaces them with densely textured and intricately crafted breaths of fresh air.
Ever since Tobin was asked to create the soundtrack to Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory videogame, the Brazilian has seemingly fallen out of love with writing attention-grabbing singles; replacing them with an appreciation for atmosphere and experimentation. Isam’s opening track, ‘Journeyman’, is an aural rebirth. A flurry of alien sounds hint at a creature emerging from the primordial ooze; a symbol for Tobin’s re-invention.
This really is a re-evolution for Tobin. Throughout his career he has been proven to have a keen ear for a beat, and an even more impressive mastery for textures. Past work exploited the use of samples to bolster the narrative of the music, but Foley Room saw Tobin explore the possibilities of outdoor recordings, morphing everything from the countryside to the sound of factories into something otherworldly, yet still contorting them into classic Tobin tunes.
Isam sees Tobin dive deeper into this rabbit hole. ‘Goto 10’ twists and turns like a butterfly wriggling free from the tight confines of its pod. There’s a sense of panic, of claustrophobia, until the final moments of release. Next track ‘Surge’ exemplifies the range of material Tobin is happy to work with: unlike the previous track, it evokes a sense of technology coming alive – like being inside a computer as it stirs from its slumber.
Then there’s ‘Wooden Toy’, a track with a rare – for Tobin, at least – vocal performance that sounds like it is a distant transmission from the depths of space. And just to prove how wide Tobin’s spectrum of samples stretches to, there’s ‘Mass & Spring’, which – and don’t read this if you’re just about to eat – has a sample that sounds like the after effects of a curry house’s finest offering. Believe me, when you hear it, you won’t be able to un-hear it.
Like the creature featured on Isam’s front cover, this album is a complex work of nature. A butterfly effect has been present throughout Tobin’s illustrious career, and all those decisions, influences and opportunities have manifested themselves in Isam.
But despite his respectable – no, faith-affirming – ambition, it’s a difficult album to fall in love with. At times it’s too unfamiliar; too erratic, to enjoy. But that no longer seems to be a concern to Tobin – he’s redefining the boundaries of a genre that so often becomes stale and sterile rapidly. What Isam does will continue to blow minds in a decade’s time – and by then we might even be closer to understanding it.