The visual and design houses (V Squared Labs, Leviathan, and Vita Motus) partnered in the show's development have worked on some impressive projects. V Squared, for example, have developed the kind of hyper-indulgent mainstream A-list live shows that even the likes of Richie Hawtin could only dream of, and the other two have had their share of bleeding edge design output as well. Technically, the visuals were, according to the press release, "generative/audio reactive real time and pre-rendered elements combined with custom software to control the show."
It's almost unnecessary to state that preconceptions like these make forming an objective opinion during the show itself rather difficult. But actually, as a fairly extreme technophile, I found it to be something of a no-brainer. ISAM was docked points by RA's Zack Kerns for being "swept up in the minutiae of [its] own process." Whereas accomplished technicality in an album can certainly be overshadowed by a shortfall in actual musicality, visually it was difficult not to be completely bowled over by the next-level complexity alone. It was technically progressive, in a way that fittingly reflected the album's remit—and in a way that stole the limelight from the music. Projection mapping basically involves projecting things onto a 3-D surface rather than a flat screen, and apart from anything else, the panache with which this was carried out was impressive to say the least. The fact that only the cubes—nothing of the background curtain—were illuminated was pretty remarkable, considering the projector was on the other side of the hall.
Photo credit: Sophia Spring
Some examples, though, might illustrate the attention to detail. During "Night Swim," the ballistics of the little green sparks bouncing down the sculpture was just one example of how surreal objects were made to seem real. The LCD-green grid formed during "Slowly" and the mist around it was laser-edged digital, but flowed organically. A heady combination of acrid red smoke, sparks and a hectic network of throbbing, glowing retro graphics accompanied "Dropped from the Sky"—all perfectly defined. One of the most impressive parts was during "Piece of Paper," when detailed machinery—turbines whirring and slamming—suddenly disconnected itself from the structure and departed to the left, revealing itself as a Battlestar Galactica-like spacecraft, pulsing with light against a beautiful nebula background. The audience lost it.
All the while, the music provided a perfectly appropriate, grandiose soundtrack. ISAM, as an album, successfully formed organic structures and textures from electronic means, creating something that was very much a hybrid of the two. And so did the visuals. The hard theory was backed by conceptual depth, and that's what elevated the show. Often, spidery networks of light took on natural properties of imperfection and randomness, and evolved and changed likewise.
The "point" of electronic live shows can, for me, be validated solely by the privilege of listening to music on a large, well-tuned system, and ISAM's searing, crackling textures were most certainly a case in point. And as stated before, Tobin both influenced the visuals and music (given the complexity of both, I'd wager that the extent of this was fairly low, though), and revealed himself when the cube lit up. But this was an art installation, really, with the musician as just a component. Most of the work had been done beforehand, but this in no way detracted from the pleasure of watching—why would it? Those who remember the night's climax and closer, "Horsefish," where the cubes were lit subtly to make them look synthetic before they peeled away, tumbled, turned and shifted jaw-droppingly, wouldn't argue. ISAM live has raised the bar, and with the kind of attention it's gained, what remains to be seen now is how other artists will follow in its footsteps.