On the occasions when he drops a new platter, the veteran producer/DJ-composer Amon Tobin can always be counted on to raise the sonic-magic bar several notches. From his early found-sounds ‘n’ beats productions such as Bricolage (1997), Permutation (1998), the magnificent Supermodified (2000) and Out From Out Where (2002), he progressed to things like Foley Room (2007), which explored the role of sound design and field recordings, and ISAM (2011), the titular acronym referring to “Invented Sound Applied to Music” and in which Tobin utilized advanced synthesis processing and production techniques traditionally reserved for sound design in film. Down the road a bit we now have Fear in a Handful of Dust, an album in which Tobin, always proudly unbound by genre restrictions, again takes us back to school with surprising new sounds in electronic music. Fear’s tracks apply themselves to the sensual and mental effects of digital and analog sound itself, and find the Brazilian-English sonic wizard meandering through largely spontaneous excursions in which his self-invented state-of-the-art synthesis tools are augmented by samples of “gender-modified” voice and a wonderfully resonant hand-hammered stringed instrument.
The album offers largely beat-free experiences with a mood of inquisitive ambivalence, its 10 tracks strangely hesitant yet intensely moody flickerings of feeling and extraordinarily rich sonority. The opening track, “On a Hill Sat the Moon,” starts with lovely, gentle electric piano-like figure; there are puckish sounds, intermittent bass notes and synth-string textures. It all gets augmented, as if painted on in strokes. The vibe is peaceful, what you might call “observant,” and there is a tentative air, as if he’s not wont to state his case too quickly or forcefully. “Vipers Follow You” has a similar ambience to start, but it gradually introduces harsher elements, more arcane shards of electronic noise and Morricone-esque guitar-buzz; near the end, it all stops, puts the brakes on, then in comes that lovely stringed instrument in a repeated plucky figure.
These are emotionally oblique or neutral pieces, and mostly short or at least not epic length, as with “Heart of the Sun,” which sounds like it’s titled –– big beams of sound, squiggly electronics flying into the atmosphere. Similarly, “Velvet Owl”’s biiiig sonic rays, rolling sequences, cascading string synths langorously swooping and undulating are there to immerse in; a little snatch of recurring theme/melody pokes its nose in amid electronic ambiguities like showers of sparks. “Fooling Alright” is nicely augmented with effected vocals that dance about a shimmering, langorous tune littered with all manner of electronic folderol. “Milk Millionaire”’s oblique tinkly shards/dronings/stabs at e-piano are nothing harsh or brutal; “Three Different Hat Sizes” tickering tones are pleasing to the ear; “Dark As Dogs” buzzes, throbs amid chimey synths in random patterns.
On a Hill Sat the Moon
Great-sounding tracks all, very persuasive clouds of sound, and there is inarguably a lot to listen to here. Yet I had been wondering why the task (privilege, actually) of writing about Tobin’s new album has been so especially difficult. It’s not that the music itself is difficult to make sense of, or indeed to just plain enjoy. But after much hemming and hawing, chin-scratching and going for long walks, I have decided that my inability to pinpoint the reason his basically sensational music is always a bit of a disappointment is down to my longstanding desperate attempts to find a depth in this great musician’s music that simply isn’t there. And –– you may find this interesting –– it could be that I’m entirely wrong.
I don’t mean to suggest that Amon Tobin’s music is stupid, or that it’s superficial or merely facile. I do mean that there is always something about it that teases the pointyheaded likes of me with the idea that this music is profound, groundbreaking and, you know, somehow important. While I do think Tobin’s music is important, I don’t think it’s profound, and I must say that this is a troubling point for me, because I’ve for so many years gone on and on about how music doesn’t have to be profound to be intellectually sound, for it to be at least very persuasive, and, more importantly, for it to be emotionally engaging. But I’ve also gone on and on about how pretty sounds and neat-o digital audio effects aren’t music at all; these are things that one uses in the process of making music; meanwhile any push forward for the art of musical composition/production ultimately still must address the issues of both form and harmonic content or rhythmic innovation.
Vipers Follow You
I believe that with Tobin’s music there is only so much there with new ideas about shape/structure and/or harmonic depth. It’s hard to rid one’s self of the notion that Amon Tobin is full of ideas, because as far as creation of sheer magnificence in pure sound is concerned, he has no equal on this here Earth and likely other planets. As his magnificent sound is so seductive, though, it can mask a paucity of perspicacity about things other that the deliciousness of the sound itself; it doesn’t appear to have any other point, in the end. At the risk of sounding a bit old-school, I’ll wager that these pretty sounds will not be enough to sustain the close listener, and probably not enough to give the music a lasting impact.
Even so: I haven’t forgotten that music at its greatest really is a sort of conference of the brain and the body, and that when it comes to music as a representation of artistic form, there often comes a point when it’s best to heed the cliché that you must ignore the brain and trust what your body is telling you, how it’s responding to the conglomeration of tones, rhythms and textures it’s being persuaded or sermonized by. Sometimes one must immerse in the sheer pleasurable sensuality of music for its own damn sake –– yes, in order to understand it.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).