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March 24th, 2004 John Graham | Music Stories
 

Keepin' It Steel

An Amon Tobin cheatsheet for fakers, hacks and new jacks.

     
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Amon Tobin
Just as his birthplace (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) is the meteorological opposite of his adopted home (Brighton, England), so has the music of Amon Tobin moved from light and loose ambient jazz to dark and dense mechano-funk. Originally emerging under the name Cujo in the mid-'90s, Tobin signed to the freon-cool electronic label Ninja Tune in late 1996. He quickly proved himself one of electronica's more ambitious and expressive talents, collaborating with icons like Coldcut, Foetus, DJ Spooky, Bebel Gilberto and more. But you, lucky reader, didn't have to be there to pretend you're an expert. This lickity-split summation of Tobin's four cornerstone albums gives even the most attention-span deficient a chance to catch up.

Album: Bricolage (1997)

Namedrop such songs as: "Stoney Street," "The Nasty"

Mandatory Ownership Rating: 6.7

The title describes it best: Tobin's debut under his own name is a layered artwork built from nicked jazz licks and jury-rigged rhythms. The hard-bop samples--sassy trumpet bleats, snaking acoustic basslines, skittish drum fills, smoky sax blurts--are sewn onto nudgingly familiar jungle breakbeats to create a downtempo noir soundtrack that's simultaneously déjà-vu and downright foreign. Tobin's first official salvo thus leaves the lingering taste of being, as one character hisses in the film Dark City, "fashioned on stolen memories...different eras, different pasts, all rolled into one." It's a fedora-stylish and occasionally fléchette-sharp beginning, but, frankly, only an introduction to even future greatness.

What poseurs can say to fake it: "Man, that hard-bangin' drum shit on 'Chomp Samba' is like what Krupa might've played if he'd done MDMA instead of THC."

Album: Permutation (1998)

Namedrop such songs as: "People Like Frank," "Sultan Drops"

Mandatory Ownership Rating: 6.1

A sideways dance on the foundation built by Bricolage, this sophomore effort remains strong on drama, lowering the BPM count on several songs to foster the vibe of a moody midnight chillout party. Jazz remains the most notable inspiration, with horn, piano, bass, vibraphone and symphonic string samples clinging to the tracks with the casual tenacity of Camel Light residue after last call. But there's also more meat to chew on, with the increased beat power of tracks like "Sordid" indicating the best is still yet to come.

What poseurs can say to fake it: "'Fast Eddie,' 'Nova' and 'Nightlife' are cool cocktail music for people who aren't color-by-numbers retro numbnuts."

Album: Supermodified (2000)

Namedrop such songs as: "Marine Machines," "Keepin' It Steel"

Mandatory Ownership Rating: 9.1

If Tobin can lift riffs from jazzcats, then I can steal words from John Coltrane and shamelessly say Supermodifed takes (cough) giant steps. The atmosphere here is dusky as an eclipse and the production thick as brick mortar. There's also an expanded menu of influences (shadowy psychedelia, rolling electro-funk, brusque industrial klank, etc.) to really spice up the goods. Where Tobin's early work could be criticized for its facile appropriations of midcentury jazz, on Supermodified he rips context to shreds and sends us to a place beyond era and memory. Samples are manipulated and bent into staticky signals bounced off a Jovian satellite. Loops of unidentifiable sound shimmer and blur like wraiths in your peripheral vision. And at their best, the beats have an anvil-cracking heaviness to them. In short, this is where Tobin ascends to the peak of techno's holy mountain.

What poseurs can say to fake it: "'Four Ton Mantis' is the best slo-mo hip-hop instrumental since the RZA's score for Ghost Dog."

Album: Out from Out Where (2002)

Namedrop such songs as: "Chronic Tronic"

Mandatory Ownership Rating: 9.0

A masterful continuation of the lessons learned on Supermodified. Every cut is mixed so densely with echoing effects and endlessly mutating noises that, on songs like the vertigo-inducing "Triple Science," you don't even need 5.1 Surround Sound to feel like you're in a cosmonaut's centrifuge. Even the slow tunes are mystically transporting. Another stunning record. With it, Tobin's raised the bar so high that most of the genre's knob-tweakers couldn't reach it even in Zero G.

What poseurs can say to fake it: "Yeah, the diced-up MC vox on 'Verbal' make a statement about the fragile place of the human voice in contemporary electronic music...but damn, that beat's mad stompin', too."


Amon Tobin appears with Kid Koala, Bonobo, Blockhead and Diplo on Thursday, March 25, at the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-0047. 9 pm. $15. All ages.
 
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