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Music Review: Amon Tobin – Foley Room

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The connections we have with our favourite artists and albums often mirror our real life relationships. Time and time again, we like to be able to return to the ones that provide a constant source of inspiration, to be drawn to those that offer warmth, or to have a fling with a certain track and move on as soon as the attraction fades. Given that musicians' directions seem to change just as much as people do, there is also an uncanny set of similarities with the break-up process. For instance, after buying an artist's releases back to back only to find that there's just no spark there anymore, it's natural to find ourselves reluctantly brooding over what seems like an inevitable parting of ways.

When Amon Tobin composed the soundtrack to the computer game Chaos Theory: Splinter Cell 3 in 2005, he brought a three-year recording hiatus to an end with a distinctive departure from his normal style. Take a quick glance at Tobin's discography and it's easy to see an inherent step-by-step evolution, but Splinter Cell seemed to bypass a substantial chunk of that development and instead leapt full-long into a head-turning experiment in sound. Sure, there were still recognisable elements and it did indeed test your stereo's capabilities, but it also tested your patience, plummeting into a nosedive of listenability and running out of ideas soon after the opening track. It was a change that left many listeners lost and confused, clinging to the hope that this was "just a phase."

Although the idea of original sampling has always been a signature component of Tobin's catalogue, at the heart of it lay that characteristically murky, almost sinister flow where Batucada meets free jazz and flirts with drum 'n' bass. But Splinter Cell changed all that, and changed it utterly. Not only is Foley Room in keeping with its predecessor (uncomfortably so, one might argue, given the deluge of déjà vu moments), but it also spells out that there's likely to be no way back to Tobin's former glories.

Named after the labs where sound effects are created, Foley Room is the result of Tobin having roamed the globe with high-sensitive microphones in hand, gathering a slew of field recordings he could manipulate into his own percussive dynamics. Spliced together with the dissected remains of fresh material by artists such as the Kronos Quartet, Stefan Schneider, and Sarah Pagé, the project ultimately amounts to an experiment in sound design. Yet while the notion of hearing Amon Tobin work wonders with an inspired snippet of a reclusive Mexican composer may sound appetizing, the end product is nothing like what one would hope it would be.

The opener, "Bloodstone," hints that Tobin's sample-chasing travels will see nuggets gleamed from the likes of some unknown gypsy ensemble in an alleyway café, but before we even get to the orchestral "Built Upon," all potential has begun to disappear from sight, with only the tenth track of the album, "Always," resembling something that may warrant repeated listens. Instead, deconstructed industrial textures run rampant until it sounds less like an electronica artist spending months in a Foley room and more like a claustrophobic trying to claw their way out of one with the lights turned off.

Nothing less than a challenging listen, this is an intensely brooding work from start to finish, but there comes a point during Foley Room where you have to stop and ask yourself, quite simply: "what is this?" The only answer that comes to mind is that it's the score to a film you will never see. Like Tobin without second-hand samples to draw from as a reference point, the context-less Foley Room sorely misses an application of any kind. The chopping and shifting beats that punctuated Tobin's previous output have been brought to the fore here, becoming a deranged monologue in the wake of a musicality that has been inexplicably shed altogether. The expertly hunted hooks and drum breaks of an obscure vinyl collection have been forsaken for sound devices such as "chickpeas falling" and "ants walking on tinfoil," transformed and left to stew in a hotpot of noise that's as eclectic as it is distorted.

The references to his former material are important here only because it haunts the way this new material is received – the change is so pronounced that it feels like a musical identity crisis. Tobin's niche was his ability to pair edginess with ambience in a way no one else could. Now, what was once sharp and menacing has become a frantic, schizophrenic beast that beats its head off the wall in one last act of paranoid madness.

It's one thing for the kind of music Tobin is attempting here to accompany a film or a computer game, and a completely different thing for it to be expected to stand on its own as an aesthetic creation. In his defence, Tobin's maverick explorations do something to redefine the scope of sampled music, intentionally edging away from a dependency on recycled material towards a postmodern art form. This Splinter Cell-era marks a brave step into a potentially groundbreaking method of composition that time may or may not look kindly on, but for now, it merely serves as another reminder that things just aren't working out between us.

Sometimes in life, when previously separated paths unexpectedly cross again down the line, the grievances of the past are but a fuzzy recollection and giving someone another chance suddenly feels like a viable option. Perhaps I was guilty of exactly this upon seeing Foley Room among the list of 2007's new releases, but the mistake will not be repeated. While Permutation and Supermodified now feel like distant memories – and ones that warrant much nostalgia – I've promised myself that there can be no place for sentimental attachment next time around.

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About Cian

  • david myler

    It’s hard to believe you heard the same album I have. It’s the exact opposite of what I hear in every single way!!!! This is by far the AT album to date and virtually everyone I’ve come across on every blog and forum who acquired *cough* leaked copies tends to agree.

    I must admit I was not a big fan of splinter cell either but that was a sound track obviously designed to follow the action in a video game. To compare it to any other of Tobins albums is misleading and quite unfair. this is the real follow up to Out From Out Where and is his most controlled and musically rich output since Supermodified. Easily! Is it possible the other half in this relationship has simply outgrown you? ; )

  • Alastair Green

    I have to agree this review is so off the mark it’s kind of crazy. We are all entitled to our oppinion but there is a point where the description itself is so far off that it doesn’t make any sence.

    I’ve been listening to Tobins output for many years with mixed reactions and was sceptical of “Foley Room” but on the first listen I was blown away. In a nutshell this is nothing short of a masterwork.

    Granted anyone looking to revisit the days of “batucada jazz flirting with drum n’ bass” will be dissapointed. but there is no shortage of immitators still providing just that. With FR Tobin does what he does best which is to leave the competition in the dust scratching their heards thinking (as this reviewer did) “what is this?”

  • jk

    i agree with u Cian. that album is more like a soundtrack. It’s obvious that Amon has run of ideas since Supermodified. I hope he quits or collaborate with a composer who is able to flesh his sample mangling skills with fresh ideas.

  • js

    seems kida bitchy. sorry but true. pitchforks says it’s his best album and I agree so there!

  • Dosh

    I think this review has it spot on. Listening to Tobin’s new albums has become an increasingly frustrating process and now it’s finally time to give up, for me anyway. I won’t be holding out for a return to form either.
    And by the way, Pitchfork said it was his best in 7 years – in other words, since Supermodified…which isn’t saying much, and exactly what this article underlined. Well written.

  • mandy

    what a load of old rubbish. funny how this review came out two months before release like the reviewer couldnt wait to be the first to poo poo it. even funnier how since it did come out every review I read says this albums amazing, which it is.

  • mandy

    “in other words his best in 7 seven years…which isnt saying much”


  • Jonez

    I’d have to compeletely agree with this article, and I’m glad there’s someone out there who sees it the way I do. I handed over good money for this…”art”. It’s mostly just pretentious sound fiddling and, as this piece suggests, sorely lacks a context.


  • Tournay

    I think this review highlights a divide between listeners: people who have paid for the CD and are disappointed because they expected more from Amon Tobin, and those who have downloaded the album, feel its a fairly good artistic statement…albeit one they might not have on any regular rotation.
    A friend recently argued that those who download and are free to delete if they’re not taken with something are in less of a position to appraise a work than the traditional “music lover” who is left out of pocket with a dud CD sitting in their rack.
    That’s probably a little extreme, but I can see where he’s coming from.

    As for this review, I can’t really fault it. There’s nothing worse than commiting yourself to a buy from an artist that was once great and being let down, and I think you’ve captured that feeling accurately. Nice read, too.

  • hm

    Well Foley Room was the first album by Amon Tobin that I ever heard (took me a while I know) and I love it, so it’s not like I even had any previous expectations. Tracks like Kitchen Sink are pushing it a bit, but hey it’s an experiment so not everything is going to work. The rest of it is great. It works very well. Oh, and I downloaded it first, and then bought it. And I’ve since got a few of his other albums too.

  • jon

    nice interesting mixed views… and a likkle bitchy to….
    bought foley room today on lp.
    been an amon tobin fan since the cujo days and i really DO believe that he has gained maturity with every release. as did the albums.
    i think foley room is pretty amazing. i was a bit sceptical for the first listen but played it about 4 more times and it really IS good.
    wont harp on. jsut saw this site today and thought i sould give you my 2 pence worth.
    if anyone is reading this paragraph to see if its worth buying. it is. not easy listening and challenging but very rewarding one you get it..
    rather like beefhearts – trout m ask replica eh!!

  • Simoon

    I’m not sure it’s totally warranted to compare its with the likes of Supermodified, sure the comparisons will be there but that was seven-odd years ago.

    If you go into this album expecting it to be Supermodified then you will be disappointed. I expect the reason for so much variation in review is because of an age group difference now.

    Fans of Supermodified when it came out liked Tobin for that style, and that sums Tobin up for them. Now new fans are picking up on Tobin’s new style – unfortunately I think a lot of Tobin’s old fan base will suffer because of this. I get the feeling this reviewer has been a fan for a long time, and Tobin has outgrown his tolerance!

    Time (and Tobin) has moved on, people!

  • big furry head

    interesting to see that some people who are fans didn’t like this album… i personally love this and do listen to this regularly. first got into Tobin when i heard Bricolage and hooked ever since. i totally disagree with the author but seems like he’s not the only one that thinks this way so, whatever, i think this album is mindblowing in so many ways. i’m excited i’ll be seeing him in 2 weeks in surround sound!!

  • this album is simply beautiful! it has so many rich dynamic textures that it gives me an ear orgasm.

  • Jeff B.

    This is the best album of his to date to do some critical listening with on an audiophile grade system. There are so many nuances that make up each song. To take everyday noise, and arrange it in such a way to create a mood is not easy. Old fans with a narrow style range may not like it (I was there at the start too), but to deny the skill involved is stupid. I am glad to see he is exploring outside the box.

  • Jeff B.

    This is the best album of his to date to do some critical listening with on an audiophile grade system. There are so many nuances that make up each song. To take everyday noise, and arrange it in such a way to create a mood is not easy. Old fans with a narrow style range may not like it (I was there at the start too), but to deny the skill involved is stupid. I am glad to see he is exploring outside the box.

  • gman

    I totally disagree. I’m not really an “original” Amon fan; he had already released this album by the time I started listening to him. I agree that it sounds like a soundtrack, but this is still his best album. In fact, it’s on my top 5 albums ever list (up there with “Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian”). In fact, I prefer most new electronic music from old. My favorite track has got to be “At the End of the Day”, which sounds like every bond movie ever and does a damn good job at it, too.