In the early days of Ninja Tune, Amon Tobin was one of the labels brightest artists. Sampling obscure vinyl to create a jazz collage, he defined himself as a staple of the Ninja roster. Now 14 years and seven albums later he's jettisoned his familiar beats to create a 'sound sculpture' with new record ISAM. While less of an aural assault than similar records from the likes of Aphex Twin, ISAM requires a certain amount of patience to make sense of its meandering melodies.
Opening track 'Journeyman' starts with throbbing electronics slowly coming to life as if being wound up by hand, before a bassline and various chiming noises enter the proceedings. It's obvious that Tobin isn't using traditional samples here; these have been specifically created to be interwoven into repeating patterns. The technique becomes clearer as the track breaks down mid way through to reveal distorted sounds of analogue tape running at varying speeds. As the more familiar percussion noises reinstate themselves there's a feeling that Tobin is masterfully conducting a symphony of alien instruments, but the track soon collapses into a muddy series of abstract noises.
Perhaps the problem here is that by abandoning the more structured samples of his earlier work, Tobin is trying to create something unique that becomes less cohesive with each track. That's also the surprise of ISAM as you'd expect more shape and form to be present considering it's a companion piece to a visual installation created by Tobin and Tessa Farmer. Although the music here doesn't describe the artwork, it tries to approach the same themes, but fails to set an underlying mood while doing so.
While many of the samples do have redeeming features their impact becomes lessened by the sparing way in which they're used. They don't form the core of each track, instead flashing in and out as songs morph and change with each passing moment. 'Piece of paper' and 'Surge', for example, use sound to confuse the listener. However 'Lost & found' employs a different technique, with a more recognisable but heavily distorted sitar type instrument providing a backdrop for Tobin's audio fireworks.
As the album becomes more comfortable with its dreamlike tapestry Tobin utilises vocal noises to create a nursery rhyme undertone to 'Wooden toy', a theme which is repeated later on to a lesser extent with 'Bedtime stories'. It's also evident in what can be seen as the standout track 'Kitty cat', which has the only consistently understandable vocals here. A sweet melody of electronic trickery momentarily erases the memory of the more nightmarish sound collages from earlier tracks. However the album eventually comes full circle with 'Nightswim' and 'Dropped From The Sky' reinstating the more bewildering techniques found before this brief respite.
Overall ISAM is an interesting, if not completely rewarding experience. It would no doubt be improved in the presence of its visual cousin, the art installation Control Over Nature. As a standalone record it's somewhat flawed compared to Tobin's earlier work, but it does show a strong desire to evolve his sound. As a very personal project then, ISAM can be viewed as a positive sign of better things to come.