Amon Tobin’s ISAM Live at Decibel Festival: Unreality TV

The hype surrounding Amon Tobin, the true headliner and centerpiece of Decibel Festival (sorry Moby, and it was never going to be Ladytron, despite the large font size on the posters), was akin to 14th-century village rumors of an famed itinerant mystic rolling his wagon into town full of potions and cure-alls, like something straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

If you mentioned Decibel Festival to your friends in the run-up to the 2011 edition of Seattle’s five-day electronic music extravaganza, the reverential tones of Amon Tobin’s name would automatically feature in the sentences that followed. We the villagers knew this sorcerer would bring with him magical powers and we were excited to see what they were.

The Paramount was surprisingly full of the curious. The London-based Brazilian’s huge ISAM Live structure stood looming and patient on stage, 25 feet across and 14 feet high. It was a blank robotic canvas just waiting to be sloshed in digital paint. White televisual blocks stacked haphazardly on one another with a tiny Tokyo apartment for Amon in the center recalled a self-sabotaged game of Tetris. Cheers, whoops, a bro-nerd shouting “I love you, technology!” (which was met with good-spirited laughs), and a swell of anticipation all greeted Tobin as the lights dimmed and the ignition key for the giant art installation was turned. Electricity flashed across the structure and everyone involuntarily went “aah.” A kaleidoscope of animated images followed, projected onto the static blocks from the back of the venue and synchronized with Amon’s music as necks craned to see more.

It was all very ambitious considering he could have just come to play Decibel with a laptop like every other DJ. And it was so very good. And unreal. Absolutely no one was dancing, apart from a few energetics at the front. Tonight required your eyes, ears and brain, but not your feet. We were all captivated from the beginning.

The music of ISAM Live is what Darth Vader works out to. Amon Tobin sounded massive. Big Boeing bass boomed from the bricks. Scattered snares resembled startled starlings departing from a tree. Alien hovercars zoomed through your ears. Planets blew up. This music has no genre. “Cinematic,” maybe. “Industrial” has too much baggage. And we are definitely not calling this “dubstep.” It’s a soundtrack and a sensory experience, but you couldn’t listen to this stuff on your headphones on the bus. The show set a new and stratospheric standard for audio-visual art. You’ll never want to watch the Wizard of Oz synced with Dark Side of the Moon again after seeing this.

We devoured the blocks as they became a twinkling city on a hill out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie only to then turn to the side and fly away as a spaceship. Star constellations fought with one another. Green-on-black Tron grids played capoeira. Fireflies floated. Dinosaur eggs cracked. A billion sonograms pulsed. Tennis balls bounced down the bricks as a disembodied harp ice-skated around our heads. Favela skyscrapers crumbled only to be rebuilt seconds later. It was like watching someone else’s dreams. With each new theme the audience cooed like we were watching fireworks.

Amon Tobin emerged from his block cockpit three times in all to wave and thank us for coming, capped and mustachioed like Super Mario’s goblin cousin. Each time he came to the front of the stage he received a hero’s welcome. We all held our hands high in the air and he took a picture of us.

It’s funny when you think that the essence of ISAM Live is a sci-fi cliché. It’s exactly what the movies in the 1950s imagined us doing for entertainment in the 21st century. Serenely filing into an auditorium with our heightened cultural awareness and expanded intellect to enjoy flashing lights and strange mechanical music. Tonight in Amon Tobin these prophecies of the future were fulfilled, minus the neoprene suits and jetpacks.