Floodwatch chin-strokes to the thinking man’s thinking man’s music.
Amon Tobin’s Supermodified changed my life.
Ok, not really. It didn’t enter my listening sphere at a particularly sensitive or transitional time in my young adulthood. It didn’t bring about a sea change in my tastes or revolutionize the way I interpret and process sound. I didn’t find an emotional resonance within it that would trigger a misty-eyed reverie nowadays, much like the way some people get about records like The Moon & Antarctica or Kid A. No, what Supermodified did was introduce a direct strain of unabashed pleasure that my listening habits had theretofore been unfamiliar with. The sudden jolt of visceral ecstasy that rushed along with “Get Your Snack On’s” thunderous entrance was unlike anything I had ever experienced. In no time this infectious exhilaration extended to my social circle; friends would casually inquire about what I had been listening to lately and with obnoxious relish I would reply, “Oh, only the sound of the fucking future.” That kind of pleasure.
Because what else could you call it? Dance music? “Big beat”? (Remember that?) Drill ‘n bass with tinges of avant-garde jazz? Matt Black and Jonathan More had to have known they were onto something when they signed the young Brazilian DJ back in the mid-‘90s, but who could have predicted the extent of Tobin’s synonymous association with their label’s aesthetic? Tobin’s modus operandi was an abstract cosmic assault that couldn’t have been further distanced from Coldcut’s playful beat manipulations or The Cinematic Orchestra’s chin-stroking faux-jazz, yet utter the words “Ninja Tune” and note the first person that comes to most listeners’ minds. Supermodified was that rare symbiotic artist/label breakthrough that elevated Ninja Tune from a quirky-but-inventive 12” singles outfit to the playing field dominated by full-length game-changers from electronic indie giants like Astralwerks, Warp, and !K7. For Tobin, it meant he was now a force to be reckoned with, unable to be dismissed as a skittering-breakbeat junglist with a fetish for jazz and odd time signatures.
The first notable characteristic of Supermodified is its density. You can almost choke on it. Tobin is one of those sound-stacking geeks – like RZA or (if I may) Einstürzende Neubauten – who derives hours of amusement from combining, say, a Beyoncé shout with field recordings of a rhino mating ritual. He’ll toss in some raw audio from a munitions factory, top it off with the sound a wave makes as it recedes across the sand, and there you have it: an open hi-hat, which will appear only twice during a track’s duration. That’s the level of sonic detail we’re talking about here. It’s the reason why Supermodified isn’t just a veritable feast for audiophile nerds like myself; it’s an endless, overflowing buffet. (“Get Your Snack On” indeed.) It’s also the reason there’s a consumer demand for $1,000 headphones and why I had to replace the rear speakers in my old Toyota shortly after I purchased the record.
If unchecked hyperbole tends to spoil your enjoyment of a record, you might want to stop reading here. Few electronic albums are more entertaining to describe than Supermodified because there are no obligatory comparisons with contemporary artists to clog up the proceedings. Part of Tobin’s genius was his distinctive sonic fingerprint; in an electronic-music blindfold test you could pick him out in a heartbeat. Lose yourself in the noir-ish paranoia of “Four Ton Mantis” before its gargantuan bass drops reconfigure your inner organs. Cue up “Slowly” with your mind-altering substance of choice and drown in its druggy, fetid swampscape. Dive into the murky underwater depths of “Marine Machines” to discover an Atlantis with brass fanfare and percussive, percolating bubbles of air. Embrace that tingling sensation as the ghostly, hyperactive onslaught of “Golfer Vrs Boxer” seizes your soul like one of the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Try to detect the atmosphere of subtle menace as you admire the scenery of “Natureland” or attempt to wrap your head around the otherworldly weirdness of “Precursor”’s chamber jazz.
It wasn’t long before the entertainment industry fell under the allure of Tobin’s cinematic soundscaping, and soon excerpts from Supermodified were re-appropriated in film trailers, car commercials, and video games. His follow-up, the nearly-as-good Out from Out Where (2002) built upon the foundation established with Supermodified but with more of an emphasis on the industrial elements that had previously been used sparingly. But his, and Ninja Tune’s, foothold in the post-millennial electronic landscape had been established. To date, Tobin has yet to release a sub-par record but for those unfamiliar with the man’s music, Supermodified is a fine place to start. If it’s been a few years since you’ve heard it, do yourself a solid and kill the lights, grab your best pair of headphones, and let the assault begin. Here’s to another 20, Ninja Tune.–Floodwatch