For the last 20-plus years, electronic music has been habitually described (or dismissed) as "imaginary soundtracks to video games." The charge has some validity. The panoply of wacky blips, bleeps, and blorps emerging from said games surely found their way into the febrile minds of producers worldwide in a mixture of homage, nostalgia-wallowing, and creative theft. There'll always be a handful of electronicists who'll plunder that quaint storehouse of eight-bit noises.

Obviously, gaming has become much more sophisticated, and so have its soundtracks. Witness Amon Tobin's new score for the third installment of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, titled Chaos Theory (Ninja Tune). He could've rummaged around in Ableton Live or Reaktor for some atmospheric signifiers and arranged 'em according to spec by teatime. But instead the Brazilian-born/Montreal-based producer roped in some Latin American all-star players, conducted them, and then filtered their contributions on Mellotron, flutes, Hammond organ, strings, percussion, etc. through an array of electronic devices. The result is some of Tobin's dungeon-darkest output yet.

If you like beats--and who doesn't?--Chaos Theory will devastate you. Drummers Fausto Bava and Giuseppe Guerra mete out a torrent of lethal blows, evoking jazz-fusion masters Tony Williams and Billy Cobham as well as Led Zeppelin thunder-merchant John Bonham.

But it's Tobin's arranging skills that really shine on Chaos Theory. Working with nearly a dozen elements in each track, he deftly weaves the parts into alternately disorienting, frightening, and elegant patterns. The disc works well as a stand-alone album. Tobin dispenses cinematic standbys like eerie trepidation, bustling urgency, UFO whooshes, and portentous bass dirges like a seasoned pro. Hollywood, take note.

Ubisoft, the company behind Splinter Cell, gave Tobin the freedom to approach the project as if it were a film score. He modeled his moods and instrumentation on Italian prog group Goblin, who crafted many memorably chilling scores for horror-flick auteur Dario Argento. "All the soundtracks I have from Bernard Herrmann to John Barry, Lalo Schifrin--it's all from [the late '60s/early '70s]," Tobin told Tor Thorsen of GameSpot. "It's got a kind of a classy sound to it that I wanted to transpose into this." In the press kit, Tobin notes, "[Chaos Theory is] both an occasionally slightly camp homage to the great soundtrack composers and a humble attempt to create the genuine article."

Live, Tobin uses Final Scratch technology to modify his own and others' tracks into unique versions the most fervent trainspotters won't be able to identify. As Tobin's Solid Steel Presents mix disc attests, his sets roam widely to encompass darkstep drum 'n' bass, hiphop, Dizzee Rascal, psych rock, and metal (as in his Slayer/jungle mashup scorches). Thankfully, they're chaotic and theoretical in equal doses. DAVE SEGAL

Tobin plays Thurs Feb 24 with KJ Sawka and Kid Hops at Chop Suey, 1325 E Madison St, 324-8000, 9 pm-2 am, 21+, $15.

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