The work of London-based Brasileiro producer Amon Tobin feels not so much textural — as opposed to predominantly rhythmic or melodic — as it does tactile. Even in his earliest jazzbo drum-and-bass experiments as Cujo, he’s dealt with sound as a physical entity that threatens to thrash open the mesh casing on your speakers and drop thudding and squirming onto the floor. Bass-heavy dance music might take on a physical dimension, and sunn 0))) or Merzbow might depend on concrete impact, but even Matthew Herbert’s Bodily Functions and Around The House, albums built exclusively from the sounds of the human body and household objects, respectively, aren’t as notably connected to the sense of touch as Tobin’s recent output.
2007’s magnetically fucked Foley Room dealt with this aspect of his style face-on while maintaining the spine-contorting beats of previous hits like “Four Ton Mantis,” letting revving motors and leaky pipes ricochet freely between headphones. Now with ISAM, Tobin follows a series of constraints — no real drums, no previously existing samples — and allows himself a certain proggy leniency to create what he describes as a “sonic sculpture,” a record so dense it makes Flying Lotus sound like microhouse. This format leaves the listener in a sticky situation: a breezy skip from track to track leaves the album sounding incoherent, monotonous, and migraine-inducing, while a full listen builds impressively and succeeds as a purist reduction of Amon Tobin’s style but leaves one reeling and slightly sick.
Beyond the whumping derricks of modulated noise that he audaciously concentrates in the record’s excellent first third, Tobin populates his contour-sketched futuristic narrative with two main sounds: his own voice, severely altered to switch perceived gender, and childlike pluckings of modeled “impossible” stringed instruments. Although fascinating in theory as part of an aural depiction of a sci-fi environment, his use of these two elements becomes problematic starting somewhere around the “sculpture’s” midpoint. “Mass & Spring” contains little in the way of build or thrust, focusing too tightly on its shelf-full of disparate synthesized zithers, coming off less like a carefully composed movement of a broader work than a half-baked session of studio experimentation. The vocals on “Kitty Cat” similarly break the flow of the album, as Tobin revels in the exaggerated diphthongs of an American cadence but does little to give them context within his junkyard Earth.
At its best, ISAM enters the realm of pure abstraction without losing its sense of purpose. As such, gimmicky diversions like “Bedtime Stories,” which riddles a lullaby with LFO-modded blasts and owes more to that “D”-word inescapable flavor of the moment than any other track on the album, keeps it from assuming the solidity and monolithic power that Amon Tobin no doubt intends for it to exude.