Permutation, Tobin's 1998 tour-de-force, spent an awful lot of time in my CD player. Its sophisticated mixture of international retro-jazz loops and schizophrenic percussion was exotic and unnerving -- irresistable, but with distinct undercurrents of nightmarish menace, like a nightclub full of faceless strangers in a German impressionist film.
If, like me, you've spent the last two years eagerly awaiting new music from Tobin, the first few seconds of Supermodified might worry you. The guitar loop, funky organ wash and heavy percussion of "Get Your Snack On" are more than a little reminiscent of Fatboy Slim. Yes, the percussion is sampled from jazz -- there's a cymbal-clash in there that he might as well trademark-- but on the whole, it's the most conventionally "clubbish" track he's created in a long time. It's unmistakably Amon Tobin...but an Amon Tobin who has apparently decided to play in the Chemical Brothers' yard. Has he truly gone Big Beat?
No, of course not. Though not as darkly elegant as Permutation, Supermodified is still rife with sophisticated Brazilian lounge-jazz samples and unpredictable drum'n'bass skitterings, this time augmented with more overt nods to hip-hop and Aphex Twin-style sympho-electronica. "Four Ton
Mantle" first lulls with a gentle oboe loop, then rams home its message with crashing percussion, a batch of stabbing string samples and one of those head-scratcher samples that you swear you've heard before but can't quite place (it sounds like funkified Wagner). "Slowly" does the slow-burn, capped by an indelible piano sample, while "Marine Machines" mutates a lazy loungecore sprawl into a menacingly militaristic procession driven by thundering drums and blatting horns.
"Golfer vrs Boxer" moves aggressively into the techno arena, fusing breakneck d'n'b beats and keyboard burbling with a choral vocal seemingly stolen from a 1950s sci-fi film. Furthering the technological tip, "Precursor" features Quadraceptor on the "velocity beatbox", which sounds like high-speed rhythmic turntable scratching sent through a wall of signal processing equipment. It's a squelchy and minimal tune, but it'll get your attention.
Horror film atmosphere returns on "Rhino Jockey", which throbs with intricately detailed mechanical menace, and the space-age Brazilian coctail jazz piece "Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track)"
proves that the clang of metal can fit neatly into more urbane music than Photek's "Ni Ten Ichi Ryu".
Though satisfying, Supermodified left me ever so slightly disappointed. After being impressed by Bricolage and floored by Permutation, I expected this album to be a revelation -- and indeed, portions of it are. But Tobin hasn't finished exploring the frontier he established with his previous releases, so there's not a lot of envelope-pushing going on here, and when he brings in "new" elements, they're things we're familiar with from other artists' work.
Expect to be quite satisfied with Supermodified, but join me in hoping that on his next album, Tobin breaks through his stylistic ceiling rather than merely pushing very hard against it.