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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Music /  From the cockpit of mercurial cuboids
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Thursday, October 13,2011

From the cockpit of mercurial cuboids

Sit back and watch the universe unfold at Amon Tobin’s show

By P.J. Nutting

Oh, Nikola Tesla … if only you could see what electricity can do now.

It may be just as well that Tesla can’t be brought from the past to Boulder this Tuesday, Oct. 18, for the Amon Tobin show, because there is no way someone from his time would survive the terminal mindfuck that will ensue. It will be difficult enough for present-day Boulderites to wrap their heads around what is surely among the most futuristic audio-visual presentations in existence.

Tobin has created a visual storyboard of his latest album ISAM, using a 25-foot-by-14-footby-8-foot installation that is as capable of transforming as Optimus Prime. The series of rectangular cuboids that surround Tobin onstage (liter ally, he’s inside one) are brought to vibrant life through projections mapped to the surfaces of each cube as geometric explosions and fractal stardust are melded to each side.

In general, there isn’t much an electronic producer can offer onstage. Studio-based music has to be made interesting somehow, and aside from moving focus to the dance floor, common compensation is a killer DJ booth. Daft Punk is cited as setting the precedent with their famed, 40-foot-tall pyramid that transformed them into the party’s air traffic controllers. Shpongle’s performance at the Boulder Theater inside the Shpongletron introduced Boulder to a similar type of 3-D projection last April. DJ cubes are en vogue, and the war of lighting rigs escalates every year.

Though the Rio de Janeiro-born Tobin chuckles when Boulder Weekly suggests he is participating in a DJ-booth arms race, he must know that ISAM puts him far in the lead.

“It’s kind of like being in a cockpit, navigating around the various controllers that you’re using,” he says. “And it’s strange because it fits with the aesthetic of the show, where the whole thing is kind of a spaceship. [Inside] it feels like you’re at a control station.”

The music on ISAM is a perfect backdrop for the pseudo-holographic quality of the visual show. He, like his Ninja Tune labelmates, is carving out his own niche in electronic music with a NASA-grade sound synthesis that is light-years beyond the untz-untz of electro.

ISAM is even more unique in that Tobin uses original recordings without directly sampling anything. From the sound of a recharging inter-dimensional portal machine to the chime of a grandfather clock as heard by an ant within the walls, each tone is recorded from source material and re-engineered to become something else.

Tobin hasn’t been to Boulder since 2007 when he released Foley Rooms, his first album based on found sound. Zoos and factories became testing grounds to seek out source material, but ISAM (which stands for “Invented Sounds Applied to Music”) is more about household sounds with extraordinary processing.

“This is much more about the processing of the sound, so I got interested in recording very simple things that were just around me and processing them to turn them into what I wanted them to be,” Tobin says. “The focus shifted from the source of the recordings to being more about what could be done with them.”

ISAM’s fourth track, “Surge,” is a series of mechanical hums and purrs that flow like a classical fugue and create a counterpoint of whirring motorcycles. Tobin used short samples and loop functions to create “a series of little engines” and regulates their oscillations with a special keyboard and algorithms that link the pressure from his fingers to the rotations of the “engine.”

“The faster you modulate, the closer you’ll get to a pure tone, and that will turn into an actual tone with a musical, fundamental note,” Tobin says. “It’s about building these little synthesized … yeah, instruments! Even with voice the voices you hear on the record they’re my own voices that have been analyzed, transformed to a different gender, different tones. The whole thing’s about transformations.

“I think a lot of it has to do with harnessing the power of the earth, right? Without getting too fucking West Coast about it all, it is, though. It’s what we do as creative people. We harness the things around us and try to shape them into something that expresses what we have inside. We’re not inventing new materials, we’re just forming them into something that we can use.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

On the Bill

Amon Tobin plays the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are sold out. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.

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