An essential oddity
Famed composer, electronic musician and audio manipulator Amon Tobin is out with a new album Fear in a Handful of Dust. It’s been eight years since his last solo project ISAM, yet after all that time he doesn’t stray from experimental glitchy electronics. This project features 10 diverse abstract electronic compositions. Using his waveform alchemy, he takes samples and synths and transfigures them into granular whispers and echos. His clouds of unruly synthetics are often drenched in an abundance of watery effects. The result is a project draped in obscurity, the tracks are connected with a sense of wandering gloom. Tobin marries dissonance and tension with intriguing sound design, song structure and meticulous detail.
“On a Hilltop Sat the Moon” is a wall of plucky aimless melodies, these synths have a character and soul, their presence is noisy, vague and emotional. The whine of a theremin gives the track a ghostly feeling. The track hums with a sense of dread in some places yet feels hopeful in others. These contentious emotions are a relatable combination in a complicated world and it’s easy to suspect where Tobin’s mind is. “Vipers Follow You” carries a similar feeling, continuously plucking strings and deep spectral hums give a welcome organic flavor.
“Freeformed” is a robotic whirl of modular synth bleeps and hums. While on the surface it feels very random and unstructured, the abstract squelches are rivaled with alien synth pads and other textures to create an extraterrestrial call and response rhythm. “Velvet Owl” is a slower track, plucks are replaced with a dense orchestra of synth pads. Borderline ambient in nature, this track is also emotionally bipolar. Morphing from sensitive and whimsical to droning and abrasive. “Fooling Alright” and “Dark as Dogs” make excellent use of distorted female vocals. The vox adds welcome humanity to an album so synthetic and often cold.
Fear in a Handful of Dust is synth experimentalism and geeky audio manipulation at its best. It is uncommon for modular synths and fuzzy instruments to feel so emotionally complex and relatable. And while Tobin could have added more human voices to aid his cold electronics, leaving them out in many instances challenges the listener, allowing us to see what Tobin can say with his wonderfully odd style of synthetic alchemy.