Amon Tobin is a master of metamorphosis.
On ISAM, his eighth and latest album (released today via indie British label Ninja Tune), he's evolved once again. This time he's built a virtual orchestra of out digitally rendered instruments, nearly all of them more or less synthesized from found objects. "I'm trying to make sounds that don't exist in the real world, using things in the real world," Tobin says. "On this album, the sound isn't what it seems. There's no real guitar, real drum, or real voice. They've all been built to sound like instruments—but I can get them to do impossible things."
The 39-year-old Brazilian electronic composer began his career in the mid-'90s as a DJ/producer renowned for his drum-n-bass beats and has since evolved into a pioneer in experimental music and become a sought-after sound designer behind two of the gaming world's most cinematic and gritty soundtracks—Splinter Cell and Infamous. His signature style is in his ability to morph sounds, like he did on 2007's Foley Room, extracting samples from field recordings (a roaring motorcycle, an ant eating grass) and break them down by their "spectral components"—that is, analyzing the physics of each sound: What are its physical parameters? How does it reverberate? Tobin even takes apart his own pipes on ISAM, messing with recordings of his singing voice until it takes on the eerie soprano of a young girl.
Meanwhile, back in real life Tobin has collaborated with British artist Tessa Farmer, who created original visual work inspired by ISAM. Farmer also manipulates and re-purposes unexpected materials, only here, she's made miniature sculptures out of insect carcasses, turning dead bugs into exquisitely spooky fairies. Tobin and Farmer "have a complete synergy with their work," explains Ninja Tune's Maddy Salvage, who introduced the duo to each other. "They both gather and collate materials from their chosen environments and translate the commonplace into complex systems. They break things down, strip away familiar layers, and reorder or transform them to create hybrids that lead the imagination into other unsettling and disorientating worlds." A limited edition CD package includes a full-color hardbound book of Farmer's sculpture along with exclusive interviews with both artists on the project. Farmer's series will also be on display at the Crypt Gallery in London, beginning May 26, with ISAM as the companion soundtrack.
This summer, Tobin will also introduce something spectacular into ISAM: actual spectacle, in the form of an eye-popping interpretation of his work. "I didn't want to be the guy onstage hunched over my laptop," Tobin says. Enter director Vello Virkhaus, cofounder of the Los Angeles-based V Squared Labs, the high-tech visual arts and F/X company behind the lavish stage designs for 50 Cent, the Police, and Coldplay. For ISAM, "Amon had this idea of making it a space journey," Virkhaus says. "So we decided to build him this structure, where he would pilot it like a space craft, and project images onto the structure to create this illusion of take off, then explore a dynamic universe."
To do this, Virkhaus and his team, along with large-scale visual design company Leviathan in Chicago and SF-based fine art-techies Blasthaus, built a massive, 2.5-ton structure composed of dozens of white cubes and rectangles made of wood and steel. Two sides of each box face the audiences at 45 degrees so the images hit both sides for a richer 3-D effect.
In the center of the structure is Tobin's cockpit—a semi-transparent control room where he plays his laptop and tweaks a few visual components to lend a sense of spontaneity.
The structure, at first glance, looks like a giant game of Tetris. But with the images, which were rendered, mapped, and calibrated by Virhaus and his team using custom-built 3-D modeling software, LED mapping programs and videogame animation techniques, the piece transforms into a shape-shifting, all-enveloping experience with glowing stars, orange volcanos, and a blasting rocket ship. The final result is like an exhibit you'd expect to find in the netherworld between MOMA and ILM. And, according to Ninja Tune's Jeff Waye, the whole set is so original, it may not get a repeat performance after it's run, which begins June 1 at Montreal's MUTEK festival before heading to Europe for a string of dates. (A U.S. tour is expected early fall.) "We're thinking of burning the whole thing down when the tour ends—including Tobin," he says. "He can't possibly top this one."
(Actually, he lives in a little cubby in the middle of it)