It is impossible to go and see an electronic music concert without being exposed to a phenomenal light shot and staggeringly complex visual performance, with dancing projections and rapidly-pulsing animations taking center stage for its entire span. As a result, electronic musicians are in a constant race to push the envelope of their live productions further than they have ever been pushed before, in an effort to bring a continuously relevant and engaging visual accompaniment to their own ever-evolving musical set. When Brazilian virtuoso Amon Tobin began work on the live version of his 2011 opus ISAM, the focus on organic sounds paired with pummeling synthesizers led to the creation of a new type of visual spectacle. Developed by production company V Squared Labs, ISAM Live takes the form of a gigantic white sculpture, comprised of several stacks of cubes at differing angles, onto which a set of sequences are projected, and mapped to compensate for the 3-dimensionality of the sculpture. The unorthodox screen comes to life in a dizzying display of pulsing lights, zigzagging lasers, ever-shifting patterns and creeping shadows; with the magic of surface-mapping, the structure appears to break apart, reform, and undulate like a living creature. After a worldwide club tour that experienced a ton of sold-out shows and highly-favorable reviews, Tobin and V Squared have reworked their performance and rebuilt the ISAM surface for an even larger and more dazzling show, which found its way to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on a chilly autumn night.
A unique surprise for the Bay Area stop on Tobin’s tour was the inclusion of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet as an opening act, who took the stage to wild applause an hour after the last rays of sunlight had dipped behind the Berkeley hills. Under stoic, azure hues, the quartet performed six songs that demonstrated the impressive scope of their work and skill, with pieces by Café Tacuba, Clint Mansell, and Bryce Dessner of The National included in their set. “Death To Kosmische”, an avant-garde piece by Montreal composer Nicole Lizée, saw each member of the quartet trade in their string instruments with small gadgets that bleeped, screeched, and hummed at random frequencies. Each musician possessed a role in the song with their own unusual apparatus, while the other three backed them up amongst the shimmering tide of blips and waves. The rest of the set upped the drama and intensity with every passing moment, even with very little movement or change of scenery onstage; the energy and concentration of the musicians resonated within every note, and the crowd exploded with cheers at the end of each number. No doubt selected because of their own theatrical feel and stylings, as well as their work with Tobin on his 2007 album Foley Room, the Kronos Quartet was well-received by the massive audience — one enthusiastic fan threw a bra onstage, which founder David Harrington remarked as a phenomenon that had never happened to them before.
When the thick curtain that had covered the back of the Greek Theatre’s stage finally parted, revealing the titanic display behind it, the roar of the crowd seemed to seek to overpower the soundsystem that was about to be activated at full force. As magnificent as the audience’s volume might have been, it was nothing to the otherworldly growl of “Journeyman”, the opening number of ISAM, that bellowed its way through the wall of subwoofers and towering speaker curves that framed the ivory mass as it pulsated, a writhing, cybernetic, gelatinous display clawing its way into existence upon it. Circuits, gears, clouds and stars all raced across the surface of the structure, and every single sound — whether hissing and alien, glistening and melodic, snarling and chaotic, or intrusive and poetic — was given a swinging, thudding, or otherwise animated visual accompaniment upon the leviathan display.
Amon Tobin’s ISAM, as an album, is a journey that alternates between shuddering, gripping walls of bass and synthesizers, and cavernous thrill rides betwixt with buzzing, rattling sonic cacophonies. Danceability is less a factor than experimentation, and while there are several solidly-structured songs that exist within the 50 minutes that ISAM occupies, there is never a moment where the phenomenon comes to a rest. The hypnotic dais that is ISAM Live offers up the fullest evidence of this, with even the quietest passages featuring small, star-like specks or dancing pillars of illumination, the signs of life never disappearing from the projection surface. Many of the projections correspond to an artist’s perception of what is generating the sounds, hence the overt displays of churning gears and tendril-like hues that snake their way along the cube corners from tip to tail of the behemoth imagery.
Despite the fact that the show is primarily pre-set and automated, in order to allow the visuals proper synchronization with the album’s unctuous tunes, a larger cube, set into the center of the structure, served as the cockpit for Tobin throughout the set. No doubt relying on simpler tools like subtle audio manipulations and dramatic filter sweeps, it was invigorating to see the artist “piloting” his work and directing the flow of the performance. Clad in an astronaut’s suit and lit by faint yellowish lights within his cube, Tobin moved and swept himself back and forth with the waves of sound, alternately reappearing and disappearing throughout the evening, mostly in the longer sequences. A new visual treat came thanks to a camera within the case, which sculpted a wireframe display of Tobin and his drifting hands as they played with spidery waves of sound upon the cubes.
When the sonic onslaught finally came grinding to a halt at the end of “Dropped From The Sky”, a gentle, sunlike glow descended upon the stage, and Tobin walked to its front to take a bow, amidst the cataclysmic volley of cheers and joyous screams that were beset upon him. For an encore, he revved up the ISAM Live structure for a performance, as Two Fingers, of Stunt Rhythms, his drum-and-bass collaboration with UK producer Doubleclick. Visuals and displays that had been used as part of the encore of ISAM Live‘s first leg, as well as a new host of animations, were used in conjunction with the thundering, explosive pieces, the structure appearing to explode, splinter, warp, and melt, each time returning to its completed state — the entire display an illusion created with the three-dimensional shadow play. The encore offered a final adrenaline rush of nearly half an hour before Tobin gave his final bows to close out the night.
Amon Tobin’s ISAM Live is the most current testament to how astonishingly synchronous a musical performance can be with an accompanying visual display, and how detailed and attentive said display can be to all of the elements of the audio work. With no floods, strobes, or lasers to speak of, Tobin’s show relies entirely upon images and sound, melding the two at a level that has rarely been seen outside of establishments like the Museum of Modern Art. The complexity and intricacy are truly breathtaking, even for the more party-minded electronic music fan who simply wants a mindbending treat for their eyes to accompany the wildly-encompassing thunderstorm of sound they are entrenched in. It will be interesting to see what Tobin has in store for his fans after the final lap of ISAM Live comes to an end, and one can hope that musicians the world over find inspiration in this magnificent piece — enough that they seek to challenge it with a creation of their own.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.