From his heady Ninja Tune days of instrumental trip-hop and breakbeat to scoring for screens both big and small (Top Gear, The Italian Job, Orphan Black), Brazilian artist Amon Tobin has just about done, seen and played it all in electronic music. His transition from structured braindance to looser and more abstract digital experiments makes its most pronounced jump on How Do You Live, a new album with so much to grab onto that you might end up grabbing nothing.
Tobin spends significant time here manipulating key instruments and sample patches until their randomization suggests improvisation. This means there’s a lot going on that suggests things like free jazz and noise rock. The front of this album leans heavily on guitar and organ sounds to do that. Staccato and arpeggiated notes glitch until they resemble rain on makeshift roofs in “In a Valley Stood the Sun,” or get sent to fight the brostep bass drops of “Rise to Ashes.” “Phaedra,” meanwhile, is Latin dance given jagged edges.
Tobin also assembles one-black-box-bands to maintain the illusion of much larger ensembles suggesting trash-picked orchestras (“Sweet Inertia”) and the disorienting cacophony of Kubrick film soundtracks (“All Things Burn”). And two of the best tracks on here stand out at least in part because they recall the best work of his contemporaries. It’s surely not intentional, but you can clearly connect the stutter-stepping synths and mangled vocals of “Now Future” to those of latter-day Aphex Twin, and the cooing/menacing post-rock of “Black as the Sun” to latter-day Boards of Canada.
I can appreciate artistic growth and exploration, and no artist should be told “don’t do that,” but just understand going into How Do You Live that this probably isn’t the Amon Tobin you know from “Chomp Samba,” “Verbal,” or even “Journeyman.” It feels self-indulgent and over-serious, its broad strokes interesting on their own but hard to interpret or really enjoy collectively.
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.