This month’s Classics Critiqued comes from ones of the most unusual artists working in electronic music, Brazilian producer Amon Tobin who is to drum ‘n’ bass what Bach was to classical music of the 17th Century. Tobin is a true innovator who has been able to see past the limitations of his genre and created a style so unique that no-one has been able to imitate it.
Tobin’s career began while living and studying at university in Brighton, he saw a magazine advert for London-based label Ninebar who wanted artists to send them demos, Tobin’s demo was the cream of crop and he signed with the label in 1996. Initially Ninebar released a series of 12” singles featuring hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass production released under the name Cujo, the material from these 12” was later released as the Cujo album “Adventures in Foam” which attracted the attention of Coldcut’s Ninja Tune label. Though he was initially suspicious of Ninja Tune’s advances Tobin signed with the label as he could see “..all the artists on Ninja were being given free rein to be the weird, not-really-fitting-in-anywhere-else person that they were. I was not fitting in anywhere, I was allowed to breathe and develop. I felt very, very privileged to be there.” In 1997 he released his début album for the label and his first under the name Amon Tobin “Bricolage” a hyperactive adrenaline shot of epic drum ‘n’ bass. At this point Tobin was still refining his style searching for the elements that would make him stand out from the crowd. Tobin didn’t mind as he recalls in Stevie Chick’s Ninja Tune book “I remember going down to Music House to get my dubplates cut, sitting there with all these drum ‘n’ bass people in big Puffa jackets, and just feeling completely out-of-place, because my dubplates Disney voices singing on them, or some weird sound that would make everyone turn round and look at me like I was a freak. I realised I was never going to be a part of that, which ended up being a great thing.”
With “Permutation” Tobin established his artistic formula not only placing Tobin in his own space within drum ‘n’ bass but bringing him closer to the other artists on Ninja Tune while expanding the label’s reference points at the time. Stevie Chick puts the album in context, ‘“Permutation” located within drum ‘n’ bass a heart beating in jazz-time, and laced more meditative moments with bristling percussion… the likes of ‘People Like Frank’ firmly in Ninja Tune’s lineage of jazz-inflected hip-hop instrumentals, but also veers off in wild new directions, with bionic Gene Krupa snare-rolls sending supine, smoky bass-lines down inspired wormholes’.
Tobin’s music is so often considered (like a lot of drum ‘n’ bass music) on a purely technical level and, textural, in Tobin’s case. Little consideration is given to the emotional and melodic content of his music, which seems strange for music so rich in evocative sounds. In fact the man himself has said the following about this very subject, “I was just feeling my way, following my instincts…There’s no theory or formula I’m following. I respond to music on an emotional basis, and try to bypass anything too cerebral really, doing what feels good, and right”. Many emotions can be drawn from “Permutation”: dread, wonder, happiness, melancholy and wistfulness being just a few. In addition to this is Tobin’s ability to transport the listener to another place or time either through the music itself (e.g. the choral vocal sample on “Night Life” recalling childhood memories of the film “Willow”) or a well placed dialogue/vocal sample.
This ability to evoke strong emotional responses and use of film dialogue is key to understanding Tobin’s music. On “Permutation” there are references to David Lynch films throughout, opener ‘Like Regular Chickens’ features dialogue from the director’s début film “Eraserhead”, the title of ‘People Like Frank’ is taken from a line in “Blue Velvet” and the song samples from two pieces from Angelo Badalamenti’s score to the film (‘Night Streets – Sandy and Jefferey’ and ‘Akron Meets the Blues’), while its thought that the ‘Fast Eddie’s title may refer to the character Mr. Eddie in “Lost Highway”. In addition to this the album is littered with samples from film soundtracks including “Taking Judy Home” by Luiz Bonfa and Eumir Deodato from the film ‘The Gentle Rain’ sampled on ‘Nova’ and ‘Kitty with the Bent Frame’ by Quincy Jones from the film ‘Dollars’ sampled on ‘Toys’. I also suspect other soundtrack samples are included on the album as Tobin has admitted to sampling Disney soundtracks and the choral sample on ‘Night Life’ sounds uncanny like one of the main themes from “Willow”. It’s the cinematic sweep, subtler and attention to detail present on “Permutation” that separates it and Tobin from his drum ‘n’ bass peers both then and 14 years later.
After “Permutation” Tobin could do little wrong following it up with two equally classic album “Supermodified” (2000) and “Out From the Out Where” (2002) and has received critical acclaim for the found sound explorations of “Foley’s Room” (2007) and “ISAM” (2011). In addition to these album his potential as soundtrack composer has been realised with projects including the soundtrack for video game “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory”, Hungarian horror film “Taxidermia” and Hollywood films including “The Italian Job” and “21” featuring commissioned material by Tobin among others.
Though there are few artists (except his current collaborator and fellow Ninja Tune signee Eskmo under the moniker Eskamon) who could be said to be influenced by Amon Tobin he raised the stakes for what could be achieved in sampler based electronic music with “Permutation” and changed the musical landscape forever.