Vivid Sydney Daily Report #9: Amon Tobin’s ISAM, GoodGod Danceteria!

There’s something to be said for saving the best for last, and true to that Vivid Sydney kept the premiere of one of it’s most-hyped events, Amon Tobin’s audio-visual spectacular ISAM, until the penultimate night of the festival’s music schedule. Naturally, FL was there to check it out: Jack Tregoning caught Amon Tobin’s first session, while I headed to the GoodGod Danceteria! to see the likes of Egyptian Lover, Nicky Da B, Prince Zimboo and (many) more for a big night of hip-hop, bounce, dancehall and garage.

Amon Tobin’s ISAM
Jack Tregoning

“It is an adolescent fantasy – it’s sci-fi,” is how Amon Tobin explained his ISAM Live show to me. “At the end of the day, it’s not trying to be high art. It’s a visual soundtrack to a piece of music. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly deep story full of metaphor to do that; it just has to be evocative and imaginative. It’s far from perfect.” For mine, after witnessing the spectacle first hand at Vivid Sydney, its creator’s own assessment is pitch-perfect. ISAM Live is evocative and imaginative, but at times it does feel like the imaginings of a 15 year-old boy penned up too long playing Splinter Cell.

There’s been a sense of déjà vu rolling up to Vivid events throughout this week: the Circular Quay Concourse teeming with people, inoffensive house drifting up from Opera Bar,’s 3D project playing out on the facade of the MCA, the giant projected figures crawling across the sails of the Opera House. Inside the building, the waiting crowd’s a mixed bag of well-heeled Sydney types and Amon acolytes. This concert’s been a long time coming and there’s a palpable buzz. It’s hard to miss the alarming red signs around the foyer: ‘Amon Tobin Is Very Loud, Ear Plugs Are Available.’ Thankfully the ushers have whole boxes full, and all around the Concert Hall ears are plugged with multi-coloured foam buds.

As the house lights go down, the matrix of white cubes on stage looks smaller than expected in this soaring space. Then the first bass rumble hits, shudderingly loud. The structure comes alive in brilliant colour and suddenly it looks much bigger. We begin in deep space; nebulous shapes moving across the cubes to quite startling effect. With $1 earplugs it’s hard to fully appreciate the soundtrack beyond the bass, but taking them out is barely an option. Tobin is at the centre of the maze in a darkened central cube, and the occasional flash of light reveals the elfin figure inside powering it all like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

Something tells me Tobin might’ve liked a run at scoring Ridley Scott’s incoming Prometheus. Sleek metallic forms are revealed to be giant Nostromo-like vessels travelling through space, and the sci-fi theme carries through the first half hour. Tobin has said of his show, “It’s not giant walls of LEDs constantly flashing meaningless visual content at you,” which is entirely true, but much of ISAM Live’s images are hardly indelible. There’s a section that spans Tron-like grids to video game motifs that leaves me almost entirely un-wowed. Musically, it’s an arresting journey through the ISAM album, and there are times I close my eyes to properly engage with tracks like Bedtime Stories. It’s always a thrill when Tobin’s pod lights up, and the stark shadow he casts on the white cube is an effect that’s stayed with me more than many of the other parts. As the show unfolds, I see a few people around me peeling off and leaving the room. A row of five all go. Beaten by the bass, perhaps?

In one standout moment, Tobin is revealed inside the cube conducting what seems to be a theremin-like motion sensor (to some, it could just look like he’s waving his hands around, Minority Report style), as a towering, stylised Amon Tobin is projected onto to the structure. At this end of the show, there are stunning, abstract images and real momentum to the music. After all goes dark and Tobin slinks out to meet the applause, he returns to his maze for two encores: the first a breakneck sampling of his earlier work including glitchy drum & bass and hip hop and the second an ambient show-stopper. The second encore has some of the strongest visuals of the night: each cube becomes a stack of boxes that tumble down in vivid 3D, then rewind into place. When Tobin comes out for the last time, he’s greeted by a standing ovation. He looks genuinely overwhelmed by the sight – perhaps the most ‘human’ moment of the night.

“That was epic,” says one guy to his friends on the way out. I wish I could be as emphatically awed. There is, however, so much to admire about Tobin’s vision, and the work of production teams V Squared Labs and Leviathan to help realise it. It’ll be fascinating to see where he takes it next. And let’s not forget the unsung heroes of the night: those ushers with the earplugs.

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