By .Philip Sherburne
I only saw Pan Sonic once, around the turn of the millennium, and when I did, I zonked out. Not because it was boring—quite the contrary: the sub-bass frequencies the Finnish noise duo wrung out of their arcane electronic gizmos were just the thing to lull me to a vertical sleep, right there on the oak floor of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. The storied rock venue was a strange place for Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen to post up, but then again, short of a crumbling warehouse in East Berlin or a coal-fired power plant somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, there weren’t many places where their music didn’t seem completely alien.
Pan Sonic may have named themselves after the Japanese electronics company Panasonic—who sent a cease-and-desist letter before the offending middle “a” was dropped—but there was nothing futuristic or consumer-friendly about their sound. Using a battery of custom-made tone generators, they conjured a form of electronic music that sounded like raw electricity: a high-voltage stream of endless crackle and throb. Their rhythms could approximate techno, but Pan Sonic’s music conveyed a kind of danger that was rare in dance music. At times, this jolt made it seem as if they were trying to tap into the very current that powered their machines—and in a very real way, they did try to become one with their waveforms. According to a legendary story, the duo once locked themselves in a room and submitted themselves to 10 hours of ultra-low frequencies at 125 decibels—an endurance test that threatened to scramble their insides.
Pan Sonic's influence over noisemakers of every stripe is incalculable, and Mika Vainio’s death this week leaves an enormous hole in the world of experimental electronic music. In tribute to his legacy, we select some of the highlights of his sprawling discography.
Panasonic – “Uranokemia” (1996)
Released before their late-’90s name change, “Uranokemia” is the lead track on their Osasto EP, released the year after their debut album, Vakio. More than almost any other track in their catalog, it sums up the unrelenting heaviness of which they were capable. There’s almost nothing to it: just a low buzz, a blast-furnace wheeze, and an analog drum machine pushed lovingly into the red.
Vainio / Väisänen / Vega – “Endless” (1998)
Pan Sonic had little in common with most other electronic acts; their true forebears were synth-wielding proto-punks Suicide. So it’s only fitting that the duo wound up collaborating with Suicide’s Alan Vega a few times, most notably on the 1998 LP Endless. In 2013, Vainio told The Wire a great story about discovering Suicide in the late ‘70s, at the age of 17. “Me and my friend were in a small town, Hämeenlinna, in Finland, and went to a shop selling mainly domestic equipment, like washing machines and whatever, but they had a rack of LPs too. And there was Suicide. I had very little money, so I asked to hear it. The guy behind the counter said: ‘This is really horrible, you don’t want to hear this.’ And I said: ‘Well, maybe you can still play it to me,’ and after ‘Ghost Rider’ started it was, phew, I felt immediately that something really important is happening.”
Ø – “Kuvio” (1994)
In addition to Pan Sonic, Vainio was a prolific solo artist, both under his own name and using a variety of aliases (Philus, Ø). “Kuvio” comes from the first Ø album, 1994’s Metri, and it is a mindfuck of startling intensity. Artists like Jeff Mills, Basic Channel, and Plastikman had already established the outlines of minimal techno, but “Kuvio” hollows it out to an unprecedented degree, stripping back to nothing but chilly, tumbling arpeggios backed by wraithlike tendrils of sound. The similarly reduced “Twin Bleebs” does something similar but adds phase delays to the equation, to an even more psychedelic effect.
Philus – “Acidophilus” (1998)
Pan Sonic preferred inscrutable, hand-soldered devices to off-the-shelf synths, but here Vainio pays tribute to the gooey squelch of the Roland TB-303. Released under his Philus alias, “Acidophilus” is a minimalist experiment in classic acid: slow, spaced out, and as gnarly as you can handle, with stereo panning that’ll do your head in.
Mika Vainio – “Osittain (Partly)” (2000)
Where his solo output could often land near brutal simplicity, his 2000 album Kajo channeled its humming electronics into gentler, more sensuous forms. “Osittain” balances unsteady drones with idling engines, crackling line noise, and oceanic static. It’s noise as buoyant as the Dead Sea.
Pan Sonic & Keiji Haino – “So Many Things I Still Have Yet to Say” (2010)
From Vega to Merzbow to Sunn O))) to Fushitsuha’s Keiji Haino (minimalist improv’s dark prince), Pan Sonic’s list of collaborators is a reflection of their own stature as noise savants. A few days after a 2007 collaboration at Berlin’s Volksbühne—which resulted in the live album Shall I Download a Blackhole and Offer It To You—Haino, Vainio, and Väisänen regrouped in the studio and came up with this slow-burning maelstrom of thrumming electronics, guitar feedback, and distant wails.
Pan Sonic – “Pan Finale” (2010)
Pan Sonic called it quits with 2010’s Gravitoni, but it wouldn’t be the last time. They regrouped in 2014 with the live album Okastus, announced their demise yet again, then returned last year with Atomin Paluu, the soundtrack to a film about the construction of the first nuclear plant since the Chernobyl disaster. But “Pan Finale,” the closing track off Gravitoni, will go down in history as the group’s definitive swan song. Beginning with a slow, loping rhythm, it gradually builds in intensity until it seems to have folded in all of the duo’s tricks from over the years, from noise blasts to delicate chimes. With its climax reached, the track simply shudders to a long, screeching halt, like a buzzsaw winding down. Its final note is a flat-lining EKG. RIP, Mika Vainio.
This story originally appeared on Pitchfork.
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