By Bree Davies
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It's become increasingly easy -- and respectable -- to create electronic music. Platinum-selling artists like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers have steadily worn down America's innate resistance to sampled dance music, and in many ways, the challenge to create engaging new sonic forms of music now falls to the future set of sample-happy DJs and producers. Many sixteen-year-olds don't want a guitar anymore for their birthday; they've got a sampler or a Technics 1200 DJ turntable on their wish list. In a climate of Internet mass availability -- where sounds, beats and blips are there for the clicking -- practically anyone can make music as long as he has a mouse and a modem, if not a musical background. The result is a barrage of material that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish the artists from the imitators.
But DJ Amon Tobin, also known as Cujo in British and European circles, needn't regard the trend as a cause for concern. Born in Brazil and raised in England, Tobin has put out some of the most atmospheric and compelling electronic music of the last five years. His unique combination of drum and bass and future jazz is darker than most electronica; it's trance music for the head, not the masses. You can try to dance to the sounds he creates, but your chiropractor wouldn't recommend it. Tobin's music is a dense soundtrack for head-bobbing and electro-lounge sipping -- complex electronica that's challenging without being too difficult or inaccessible.
Although he cringes at the notion of his music being experimental by design, Tobin does look at it as the result of various trials and test methods. "You make a track," he says, "and you come across other things that you like to use in that track. It's always sort of gone on like that for me, really. It's an ongoing experiment." Tobin's latest offering, Supermodified, showcases his ability to weave jazz, hip-hop, drum and bass, ambient and bossa nova into a universal electronic fabric. The album suggests the sounds of Charles Mingus and the sonic abstractions of Aphex Twin meeting in some musical purgatory between heaven and hell. In less qualified hands, the result would be a cosmic mess. In Tobin's, they are dazzling. The album's opener, "Get Your Snack On," begins slowly with just an organ loop and what sounds like a steam engine releasing treble tones. That intro soon gives way to funked-out jazz drum breaks and Brazilian- flavored flute flourishes. Tension remains high throughout, with the jazz breaks rolling alongside the horns, organs and drums -- and all of it threatening to combust at any moment. It's the funkiest Beastie Boys groove you've ever heard, the kind of song Art Blakey might have released if he were still around and into avant-garde electronic music.
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Supermodifiedis Tobin's third full-length release for the London/ Montreal-based Ninja Tune label, one of electronica's better-known imprints. Since the mid-'90s (Tobin's first Ninja release, the CreaturesEP, came out in 1996), he has released a number of singles, remixes and EPs for the company, which has garnered attention for its embrace of innovation and its artist-centric production approach. Founded in the early '90s by Matt Black and Jonathon More -- the DJ duo otherwise known as Coldcut -- the label has been home to some of the more daring personalities in the arenas of jazz, drum and bass and hip-hop, including the Herbaliser, Kid Koala and Money Mark. Coldcut itself remains one of the top names in all dancedom -- a title it secured after famously remixing Eric B. & Rakim's hit "Paid in Full" to include Yemenite vocalist Ofra Haza singing over juicy hip-hop beats.
"We [the Ninja artists] have all got our own agenda or whatever -- we all believe in what we're doing," says Tobin. "It's quite nice to feel that you're in good company. People on the label seem quite serious about what they are doing."
A gentle Brit, Tobin comes across as a person who shares his labelmates' seriousness. His music also exhibits signs of creative perfectionism. Nothing is left to chance on his records; rather, he offers a calculated chaos where patterns might emerge to the listener only after he steps back for a moment or two. Tobin has few stylistic contemporaries (among them is fellow Englishman Squarepusher, who, like Tobin, is obsessed with jazz and understands the complex relationships between jazz drumming and instrumentation), largely because of the skill level his music requires. The cutting, dicing and splicing of jazz samples is a tricky thing, especially when the time signatures themselves are tricky. Tobin complicates the matter further by refusing to use sample CDs.
"All breaks featured are completely fresh," he says. "Sampled from the source, like fucking Evian!"
Tobin's music is not all about jazz-reverent breaks and funky beats, however. Much of Supermodified is moody, introspective bedroom electronica. "Marine Machines," one of the album's exemplary tracks, shows no evidence of jazz or drum and bass whatsoever -- it's purely scary soundtrack music. With throbbing French horn samples, edgy strings, industrial synths and hissing percussion, "Marine Machines" is Orbital-esque darkwave that is about as far away from jazz as The Matrix is from the Cotton Club. The track offers one of the ways in which Supermodified -- with its multilayered approaches and styles -- clearly finds Tobin making a concerted effort to expand his range. For all its meanderings, however, Supermodified's best moments come when Tobin mixes his old jazz-centric drum-and-bass stylings with a newfound respect for experimental electronica. "Slowly" is a fantastic melding of delicate organ samples over a gentle trip-hop loop; it's reminiscent of Tricky's best work, specifically Maxinique. With its layering of drums, piano lines, vocals and horns, "Slowly" is a quiet -- but lovely -- storm that looms over a listener.