Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Intersection: Amon Tobin

The Intersection is a new feature on JazzWrap that looks at artists that blend jazz with electronica (a tradition pioneered by none other than Miles Davis on such classic recordings as On the Corner).

This week's focus is Amon Tobin.

His name sounds like an Ancient Egyptian sorceror priest. It's a fitting name, albeit in no way obvious since Tobin is an Brazilian living in Britain. And it's just as well, because Tobin's sound is as mysterious as it is hypnotically intense. Since Bricolage, his '97 debut (not to mention his '96 album Adventures in Foam recorded under the moniker Cujo), Tobin has delivered compellingly original drum 'n' bass exotica and trip hop soundscapes that mine thunderous bebop drum breaks and spacious film noir moods.

Bricolage was a promising debut, but is the weakest of his albums in retrospect, because he was still leaning heavily on drum 'n' bass formula and hadn't yet developed strong compositional skills. Listening to it now, it seems that Tobin was fixated on drums and textures, and fans of frenzied bebop drum solos will recognize his inspirational sources (Art Blakey comes to mind, as does Gene Krupa). Some of the tracks hold little interest beyond the surface. Working with layers as well as textures is where Tobin really hits his groove. Examples of this on Bricolage include "Easy Muffin", "The New York Editor" and "The Nasty". By the end of the album -- "One Small Step" and "Mission" -- the drum breaks dominate the aural canvas with limited appeal. It's clear that Tobin is still just a journeyman and not a master on his first full length.

On his follow up, Permutations ('98) Tobin sounds more assured of his style. The drums are still strong, but more effectively used and his use of samples more astute. On "Bridge", the bluesy bebop line and winsome melody are given life by the rolling drum licks. On "Sordid" Tobin takes an exotica loop, sticks a blues vamp on it and then a motoric drum pattern, all to great effect. On "Nightlife" he creates a wholly exotic sonic world, complete with ethereal, half-speed piano, strings and choirs.

The third album, Supermodified, is Tobin's masterpiece. His use of jazzy drum samples and soundtrack moods is at full potency on the 2000 album. It starts strong and stays strong throughout, offering a hypnotic array of abstract downtempo and drum 'n' bass soundscapes. The opening track "Get Your Snack On" kicks in hard with electro blues. "Four Ton Mantis" offers gargatuan beats and predatory evil. It goes to dreamy downtempo on "Slowly", other worldly on "Marine Machines", abstract ambient on "Golfer vrs Boxer", exquisitely beguiling on "Deo", free jazzesque on "Precurser", intriguing on "Saboteur", reverb groovy on "Chocolate Lovely", hard driving on "Rhino Jockey", brilliantly cut 'n' paste on "Keepin'It Steel" and organically easy listening on "Natureland".

Tobin continues to polish his technique on 2002's Out from Out Where and adds some new tricks to his bag. It opens with "Back from Space," which carries a sample that sounds suspiciously like something from Tchiakovsky's "The Nutcracker." That's no surprise, given Tobin's love of orchestral flourishes. This is followed by the first single "Verbal," which sounds inspired by the work of glitch hop pioneer Prefuse 73. It's abstract hip hop vocal diced and spliced against a crackling beat. Tracks like "Chronic Tronic" and "Proper Hoodidge" display Tobin's talent for fierce bebop drum breaks and tense cinematic moods. Any second you half expect someone to yell: "Get down! It's gonna BLOW!!

Following the release of his live album for Ninja Tune's Solid Steel series, Tobin delivered Chaos Theory ('05), his soundtrack for Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell video game. It's easy to imagine special ops maneuvers in rubble-littered, booby-trapped lairs while listening to Tobin's tense, percussion-riddled cinematica. What makes this album ostensibly different from Tobin's previous releases is the fact that he uses live musicians playing drums, percussion, flutes, bass, piano, electric piano, Hammond organ, guitar, Mellotron and strings to augment his unique electronic sounds. Despite the augmentation, no one will mistake Chaos Theory for anything but an Amon Tobin album. By turns austere and exotic, pensive and propulsive, tracks like "Ruthless," "El Cargo" and "Kokubo Sosho Stealth" convey the potentially explosive danger awaiting players around each digital corner. Tobin's command of mood on this outing is awe inspiring and his already impressive musical ideas benefit mightily from the use of live instruments. One can easily imagine a track like "Theme from Battery" being performed by some edgy chamber group like the Kronos Quartet. The use of strings on this album certainly help sell the notion.

Speaking of Kronos Quartet, Tobin collaborated with the group on one of the tracks for his sixth stunning studio album, The Foley Room ('07), which relies more on found sound than samples, but is still recognizable as a Tobin album (a Foley Room is the name for a sound effects recording studio in the movie business). If you needed proof that Tobin was more than a sample-happy drum 'n' bass trip hop dj, this album is it. It's indisputable proof of his incredible imagination and a compositional skill that is rare in the electronica world. Tracks like "Bloodstone" and "Horsefish" immerse the listener in a sonic world of wonder. Go there now.

Next Week: To be announced.

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