- Although firmly rooted as a sample-based artist, Amon Tobin is now bent on pushing the field recording techniques he explored on Foley Room to their logical extremes, at this point crafting entire synthetic instruments from slivers of incidental sound. In that sense, this is beat science at its most literal, a process where he assembles each and every component from the ground up, attempting total mastery of the art. As for the results? Well, this is easily his most technically adept piece of work thus far—in many ways, a marvel of creation; It's also, quite often, his most frustrating—the sound of a perfectionist being swept up in the minutiae of his own process.
At first ISAM unfolds like a stunning natural progression: opener "Journeyman" is as majestic as it is imposing, like waking up at the foot of some giant ornate citadel and then slowly craning your neck skywards to find stars bursting overhead. After the blinding opening theatrics, you're rocketed between small pockets of sculpted chaos, a disorienting effect that manages to become commonplace once ISAM starts leaping from one idea to the next without warning. In the meantime, however, you are left to fend for yourself a while longer as the first track winds down, and the sonic ripples from some kind of sub-spatial menace begins to circle the edge of your perceptions. Once "Piece of Paper" opens, this formless presence starts to morph and flail: ratcheting itself around your senses and violently slamming against walls unseen. From there, things just get weirder.
What follows is an exhausting barrage of synaesthetic design, where everything from alien hydraulics to percussive steel fractals are allowed to take shape, all forming and disassembling at will within the realm of impossibility. It's definitely overwhelming; for better or worse, this kind of heavily abstracted layering causes you to completely miss most of the contextual cues you would use to identify any natural sources, to the point where the hypervivid bone-crunch in "Lost & Found" (functionally, the snare) seems almost comically out of place.
That being said, it's not until around halfway mark that listening become grating due to ISAM's biggest flaw; even while presenting his most caustic experiments, Tobin has always taken the time to reinforce the romantic element of his work. It's those exotic flourishes and sweeping melodies that tend to justify these album long statements, making them as subtle as they are sinister, and more importantly, hauntingly expressive.
They are here on ISAM, but they seem noticeably underdeveloped when compared to the ones found on Foley Room or Supermodified; as a result, they fail to offset the album's brutal physicality. Although primed to reveal detail after detail upon further listening, ISAM still remains a bittersweet affair, impressive yet unfulfilling in the same way that many Hollywood blockbusters tend to be. The seeds, however, do remain, particularly in the lost memories on display via "Wooden Toy"'s gender-hacked persona. If he can probe deeper into this incarnation with the tools he has now, then perhaps Tobin's real opus is still yet to come.
02. Piece of Paper
03. Goto 10
05. Lost & Found
06. Wooden Toy
07. Mass & Spring
09. Kitty Cat
10. Bedtime Stories
11. Night Swim
12. Dropped from the Sky