Review Summary: Amon Tobin: Greatest Hits (III)
Does Amon Tobin have anything left to prove? Once a key player among plunderphonic artists, now a lone wolf prowling IDM on his own terms, and forever armed with one of the smoothest senses of groove in any medium, the man’s one of the most reliable names in electronic. His work since 2007’s Foley Room
has tended towards the abstract: 2011’s ISAM
suggested a dizzying range of new paths for his modulation of samples and found sounds, while the respective sound sculptures and soundscapes of 2019’s Fear In A Handful Of Dust
and Long Stories
teased out a select few of those possibilities to their most distant conclusions. Each of these seemed to expand Tobin’s frontiers in their way, yet his latest album How Do You Live
draws lines between the leaps its predecessors made from one another, and gathers their strengths into an assertion of dominance. It’s a robust story-so-far for the current era of Amon Tobin, perfectly poised to delight returning fans, while offering new listeners a generous amount of space to orientate themselves.
The shape of this album is, in the most organic sense, that of old bones refashioned under fresh skin: it packs a decade’s worth of work into forty-five minutes without losing any of their precision or vitality. The journey runs much the same course as it did from 2011 thru 2020: this record’s sequencing aligns quite curiously with the chronology of its parent works. We hear this early on in the single “Rise to Ashes”, which calls back to ISAM
’s most volatile contortions on the likes of “Goto 10” and “Dropped From The Sky”, while the following “Sweet Inertia” integrates a rare vocal feature into a more downbeat take on the same matrix. Further on, the run from “In the Valley Stood the Sun” to “Now Future” is practically a direct successor to Fear In A Handful Of Dust
’s eerie glitch, weaving that style into ever more skittery rhythmic skeletons and spreading its ambiguous pairings of tension and nostalgia across alien soundscapes; finally, the closing pairing of “Black As The Sun” and “All Things Burn” takes Long Stories
’ ambient palette to new heights of intrigue.
I don’t know what’s seems less likely: the least accessible phase of Amon Tobin’s career getting an all-original greatest hits package, or the package in question feeling like such a natural next step. Long Stories
and Fear In A Handful Of Dust
seemed to split Tobin’s stylistic progression both ways across a stylistic fork in the road, and so it’s undeniably satisfying to hear both strands united so cohesively under one release. But beyond that, no greatest hits is completely without a couple of unexpected treats. First among these is the opening title-track; if the album as a whole represents a whole arm of its creator’s corpus, then this track a microcosm of a microcosm, flexing every guise of his current arsenal with alternating shows of minimalism and muscle. The opening progression is almost brutally simplistic, crudely see-sawing across a single semitone before stabilising into a graceful pair of chords that spend the rest of the track in conflict with perhaps the most threatening percussion we’ve heard on a Tobin album in years. This is all held together by a spiralling Phrygian motif that teases various possibilities of the unknown each time it appears, only to give way to familiar strengths. As far as repurposing established sounds to catch the listener off-guard goes, this track is exemplary.
The other standout is the most timelessly Tobin piece here. “Phaedra” swaps glitch for groove, dishing out a sleek cruise that would have felt equally at home on either Foley Room
, though its trip-hop -ready bassline and noirish guitar samples go all the way back to Bricolage
. If “How Do You Live” is a well-placed introduction to Tobin’s current era, “Phaedra” is practically a calling card to his entire style. Both tracks are foci of an impression teased at various points by the rest of the record: this is the first Tobin record since Foley Room
that makes for a viable entry point to his discography as a whole. They are both highly representative of things that Tobin has always
done well, and the record’s compilatory layout seems ideal as a primer to the various releases it maintains a dialogue with.
How Do You Live
also fares rather positively in comparison to its predecessors within what it does their terms. On all returning palettes, there’s a sense that Tobin is refining rather than reiterating, often to noticeable effect: “Button Down Fashion Bow”, for instance, shifts between increments of suspense far more fluidly than any of Fear In A Handful Of Dust
’s meandering cuts, while “Black As The Sun” drops a delightfully unexpected percussive barrage as a Gordian knot-style solution to Long Stories
’ often lacking stakes. This album’s architecture and construction are as on point as ever; Tobin’s ear for timbre and groove, not to mention production talents, are so established as to be taken for granted at this point. As far back as 1998’s Permutation
, the most salient points of criticism to be landed on his records come down to direction rather than execution.
To that end, I feel that How Do You Live
makes a slightly weaker statement on its own terms. Very little here feels like a revelation; it’s an innovative album within individual tracks, but it’s reluctant to challenge its audience to identify Tobin’s fundaments and departures within it in the same way that any of its source works pulled off so boldly. There’s a certain reassurance in feeling like you get it
first time round for a change, but so much of those past records’ allure lay in the impression of an artist holding half his cards out of sight. This is hardly fatal as detractions go, but it makes me struggle to see How Do You Live
claiming any crowns from its strongest comparable works; ISAM
’s mercurial brilliance retains a particular advantage. My hope is that we’ll look back on this album’s summative qualities in a similar light to 2002’s Out From Out Where
’s final victory lap for his spy-music era and the sampling methodology thereof, but this would be contingent on whatever comes next making the same kind of pronounced departure as Foley Room
. Are we now primed for another new era of Tobin? Who’s to say? The man may play faithfully by his own rulebook here, but the tricks he lays down sound as great as they ever have.