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.