(October 18, 2011 in Boulder, Colorado) Amon Tobin, long known as a pioneer of electronic music, has a new album called Isam. He also has a new live show, and it's pretty spectacular.
If you go expecting a dance party, you're going to be disappointed. Actually, no -- scratch that. You won't be disappointed, no matter what you're expecting. However, this particular show isn't geared toward dancing or any sort of typical DJ set. Instead, it's a kind of audiovisual sculpture meant to be stared and wondered at. It's also like attending a meeting of a strange futuristic cult that worships geometry.
There are two centerpieces to this experience: we'll call them the Tetralith and Etchacoatl. The former is the three-dimensional form onstage that you're meant to be looking at, and the latter is the giant projector in the middle of the audience that's making what you're looking at.
The Tetralith is so named because it's a bit like the monolith from 2001 and a bit like a game of Tetris. It's like a game of Tetris in the sense that it's composed of many cubic forms arranged in a haphazard configuration. It's like the monolith from 2001 in the sense that... My god, it's full of stars.
Etchacoatl is so named because it's a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch and a bit like Quetzalcoatl -- the deity of the dawn, arts, crafts, and knowledge. It's like an Etch-a-Sketch in the sense that it draws lines and shapes by projecting them onto the Tetralith. It's like Quetzalcoatl in the sense that it brings light, beauty, and amazement into your world. If Etchacoatl is doing its job, you won't even notice it's there because you'll be too hypnotized by what's happening onstage.
Basically, Tobin and his team of wizards have accomplished what all human artists aspire to: they have created something that's pretty much impossible to fully describe in words. You have to experience it for yourself to get the full effect. You can imagine what it's like by reading this review, but it's not going to be quite the same. And yet we must push on and at least attempt to explain.
The essential concept at the heart of this multimedia feat is the juxtaposition of real space and projected space (what they used to call “virtual space”). Throughout the show, Etchacoatl is projecting virtual space onto the Tetralith, which already has its own real space in the form of intersecting planes. The combination of the two allows for mind-boggling optical effects that trick your brain in ways you didn't even know were possible.
Here's an example that will hopefully explain. If Etchacoatl projects a series of horizontal parallel lines onto the Tetralith, your eye is naturally drawn to the real-space geometry of the Tetralith's cubic forms. This happens because the uniform texture of the projected lines isn't providing any strong visual reference points for your brain to latch onto; as a result, you see what's actually there. If Etchacoatl then starts to warp the lines, making them look more like sound waves, the uniform texture is destroyed and your eye becomes drawn to the projected-space geometry of the lines. The cubic forms of the Tetralith then seem to flatten out, becoming more like a movie screen. You see a riot of shapes and colors dancing in the projected space that now seems to extend backwards indefinitely; you now see what isn't there. However, when the vibrating lines become too frantic, they begin to cross over each other and blur together, creating more of a flat texture in the projected space; consequently, your eye is drawn back to the real-space geometry of the Tetralith itself. Once again, you're seeing what's really there.
Now imagine a hundred different permutations of this effect, cycling in and out of your perception, and you'll start to understand why this is something that has to be seen firsthand. Sometimes Etchacoatl will project virtual shadows onto the Tetralith, exactly aligned with the real-space forms, making the real-space forms appear exaggerated and false. That's the most amazing trick of all -- when you start seeing something that's realer than real.
All of this is to say nothing of the music. Tobin is part of the living sculpture, with his DJ booth inside the large central cube that's embedded in the Tetralith's face. From time to time throughout the show, he will fade the lights up inside the booth so you can see him through the translucent surface of the cube. His unique samples — many of them recorded and engineered in-studio by Tobin himself — are perfectly synced to the visuals -- the computerized textures on the Tetralith jumping and morphing with each slamming bass note. Again, it has to be seen and heard to be believed.
In one part of the show, a camera in the DJ booth motion-captures Tobin moving his hands in the air; Etchacoatl then magnifies the image of him, turns it into a crazy silhouette made of individual dots, and projects it onto the Tetralith. So what you see is Tobin moving and gesturing in the booth, surrounded by a giant version of himself making the same gestures, with waves of light flying from its fingers.
If all of this sounds like the kind of spectacle that the techno-junkies from Neuromancer might attend in some dingy warehouse, that's because it is. Put Isam next to smart phones and GoogleEarth on the list of things that have the power to make us feel like we really are living in the future. Even if you've never heard of Amon Tobin or his music, and even if you're not normally a fan of electronica, you're going to enjoy this show. It's a wildly original sci-fi performance art masterpiece.
Amon Tobin's new album 'Isam' is out now on Ninja Tune.