Unlike the past two years I’ve attended Decibel Festival, this year I had a couple shows that I planned in advance to attend in full, rather than jumping around among the venues throughout the evening (though of course that would happen too). The first of those shows was at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday evening, where the Red Bull Music Academy Presents Amon Tobin showcase was happening. I knew of Amon Tobin by name and had certainly heard his music before on KEXP, but couldn’t have said that I really knew any of it. However, I’d been hearing a lot of buzz about the stage show for his new album, ISAM, and I had a strong feeling this was going to be a show not to be missed. Also on the bill were Eskmo, filling in for the originally-scheduled but sadly ill Baths, and Tokimonsta, neither of whom I was familiar with.
Tokimonsta was playing a fairly upbeat set of music when I came in, but varied it with a slower, trippier dreampop-esque style later on. The acoustics in the theater made for an interesting experience: her music was space-filling in a sonically hollow way—it sounded good and present without being overwhelmingly loud. Later on I checked up in the balconies and it sounded more booming up there, either because it was better balanced on the floor or simply because it had reached a more booming style. I noted that the video projection featured several segments I’d already seen the previous night at the Opening Party, which made me wonder if Decibel just had the same crew doing video everywhere, but they did mix in new parts that I hadn’t seen yet, keeping it interesting. Tokimonsta had a near-constant smile as she played, clearly enjoying her work, which is always fun to see. She mixed in some Hendrix guitar to finish her set, a nice touch for Seattle and a good closure to a good set.
I’d seen the scheduled artist Baths playing at the Capitol Hill Block Party and liked his set, so I’d been looking forward to seeing him again. Eskmo however turned out to be a more than adequate replacement. He caught my attention at the start by singing as well as playing—I don’t know why it tends to surprise me when electronic artists aren’t strictly instrumental or at most using sampled or guest vocalists—and had quite a good voice, though as his set went on he did more spoken/shouted vocal samples than actual singing. But Eskmo really grabbed me with his inventive live percussive samples, starting with opening a soda can for the distinctive pop and fizz, then tearing a paper towel, crumpling a foil bag, and banging on a metal pipe with a wood block. Musically, he was at times heavy, dreamy, and dancey, with a sense of individual songs but playing continuously with organic transitions from one to the next. He also had his own video programmed with synched effects and changes as he played, and it was fascinating to both hear and see him transition from a long space-rock sequence to something more grounded and organic (with a tree/nature video). Eskmo was definitely one of my favorite discoveries this year, and while it’s too bad that illness struck Baths, it’s fortunate that Decibel was able to get Eskmo in his place.
And then Amon Tobin came on with an indescribably awesome show. The end.
Okay, maybe I can describe it some, though if a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video would be worth a hundred thousand, and still wouldn’t fully convey the experience. Amon Tobin’s ISAM: Live was a visual and auditory sci-fi epic journey moving from ominous rumblings through space rock, trance, hard stomping techno, and dreamy dance music. Although it had no apparent theme or story, the accompanying video matched the music’s varying moods, for example starfields and spaceships in the trancey sections and big moving machine parts in the slow stompy sections. The visuals were really gorgeous, a work of art in their own right, many of which had the look of traditional animation on film rather than being CGI (though no doubt CGI was in extensive use). But although the visuals were neat on their own, they wouldn’t have made the performance extraordinary.
What elevated the show to a new level was where and how the visuals were projected. Tobin sat inside a massive stage structure of multiple stacked cubes of different sizes, like an abstract collection of buildings. The visuals were projected onto this structure, mapped out by a computer to eliminate the normal distortions of projecting flat video onto a three-dimensional surface, to gain a 3D effect that was truly awesome. Most, if not all, science museums only wish they had something this cool. (For that matter, EMP/SFM, take note.) So when a spaceship flew across the screen, it seemed to fly out toward the audience and then away. When a musically stompy section played, the set became a giant moving machine. Even something as simple as filling the structure with equally-sized cubes seemingly brought it to life as the cubes rotated and shifted around, making it practically impossible to tell that the structure was not actually changing shape before our eyes.
Really, the show left me with one puzzle: as much as I did enjoy the music too, I wondered whether the album would stand up on its own after seeing this visual experience. But I’m looking forward to finding out. With ISAM itself finished, Amon Tobin came out for a bow and then went back into the cubes for a stomping drum-n-bass encore, followed by a Disneyesque fantasia with more cool effects of the blocks moving around. This was definitely the event to see at Decibel Festival this year, and made it difficult to fairly judge any other stage shows throughout the weekend; everything else was both literally and figuratively flat after this.