Electronic artist experiments with sight and sound

Mary Wardell

It’s difficult to imagine what kind of concert can be expected from a “virtuoso sound composer,” such as Brazilian electronic music artist Amon Tobin.

The way we make music is evolving, and the way that music is performed in front of an audience is changing too.

For the tour of his latest album, “ISAM” (Indexed Sequential Access Method), which was released last year to rave reviews, Amon Tobin—true to form—is experimenting with something totally new.

Electronic music typically does not translate to an engaging stage performance, especially when there are no vocals and no traditional instruments.

Watching someone play a drum machine on stage tends to lack the excitement we’ve come to expect of concert-going.

So when I first previewed Tobin’s new tour on Youtube, I enthusiastically bought tickets for a concert that promised to be an original and exhilarating experience.

The album itself, along with his last, “Foley Room,” is notable for Tobin’s exclusive use of his own modified and intricately sculpted field recordings (a deviation from jazz vinyl samples of earlier albums).

Tobin’s innovative approach to the concert medium was to collaborate with graphic design artists to create a set made of large white cubes on which an intricate light show would be projected to create an intense multi-dimensional audio-visual experience.

I arrived at the Royal Oak Music Theatre with high expectations. The opener, Holy Other, was hugely disappointing.

Holy Other embodied the problem with an electronic set—he was boring to watch. It didn’t help any that his music felt heavy, monotonous and uninteresting.

Then the curtains opened to reveal a plain cubic structure resembling an unfinished piece by M.C. Escher. Hidden inside one of those cubes was Amon Tobin himself and his drum machine, poised to begin.

As the first beats began to rearrange my insides and damage my hearing (word to the wise: wear ear plugs), the set became a window into the depths of outer space.

The next 20 minutes featured a light show that created a modern spectacle of truly impressive magnitude.

Giant gears churned and shattered, cities rose from nothing and were destroyed piece by piece and smoke plumed.

Tobin himself was alternately projected larger than life on the cubic screen or could be seen through a screen in his cube; meanwhile, abstract images emerged, tumbled, and rearranged themselves in bizarre fashion—morphing into blinking microchips, barcodes, and strange patterns disjointedly reminiscent of the times.

It was clear the amount of intricate engineering required for the show was enormous. After a while, perhaps because I am a child of this era or perhaps because the first half was just better, it left me wanting more.

If there was a single unifying theme, it was a broad criticism (or arguably a celebration) of modernity that tended more toward looking “cool” than making a comment. While it did exceed “cool,” there were images that felt redundant and moments that disappointed.

It was ultimately an extremely impressive performance, but I’d hoped the artists behind the set would have had the time and budget to make every song count.

While technology and artistry come together in incredibly impressive ways, it’s hard to beat the energy and enthusiasm generated by old-fashioned live performance. At least, for this music-lover.

As for the album itself, though I can’t necessarily speak from the full context of electronic trip hop leading up to its debut, but it is clearly something composed with a great amount of skill and authenticity, and it isdefinitely worth a shot to the curious listener.