Finnish electro-minimalist duo Pan Sonic’s last work was the four CD, four hour Kesto box released three years ago. It was a mightily impressive work, but at least two of the CDs showed a hitherto unexplored warm, almost dreamy side to the pair’s music. Anyone thinking that Mika Vainio and Ilpo Vaisanen were mellowing out may be in for a jolt.
Katodivaihe / Cathodephase (all of the titles on the album are in Finnish and English, but I’ll just use the latter) contains some of the most extreme music Pan Sonic have recorded. The opening track “Current 1”, though, is almost lovely. It features a guest spot by cellist Hildur Gudnadottir, whose instrument is pushed centre stage. The track has a dark menacing undercurrent, but also a strangely comforting melancholy about it. “Transmission” follows, a low-tempo electro piece punctuated by huge pulses of bass, that shake the speakers at even relatively low volumes. This is dark and nasty music. Just how many amps did the pair blow up in its recording? There are a couple of short, fairly abstract pieces, before “Laptev Sea” proceeds into familiar Pan Sonic territory. It gently throbs along underpinned by a rhythm of light beats and clicks. It doesn’t sound that far removed from ambient Aphex Twin, if stripped down.
The things that characterise Pan Sonic’s ouevre more than anything are the use of static hum, and manipulated electric frequencies. The crackle, spit and drone of electricity is quiet, but masks immense energy. This is reflected in the extreme range of volume that the duo use. They are not afraid to have tracks that have long periods of near silence, punctuated by a near inaudible series of microtones, or sharp slithers of sound. There are also bursts of head splitting noise, and the use of frequencies that are, quite frankly, uncomfortable at any volume. The central quartet of tracks on Cathodephase are beatless. They are largely very quiet, too. “Comparative” reintroduces the cello, but it sounds more like distressed steel. There is something almost scary about the silences, as if they portend something horrifically violent – daring the listener to hike up the volume and take the consequences. Seven minutes into the track, it erupts into chaotic broken feedback, like a malfunctioning, and potentially lethal transformer – a mass of exposed wires and sparks. “Connections” splutters and screeches like an overloaded Geiger Counter, before flying into total abstraction.
The shrill drone that introduces “Haiti” comes as some relief. Underpinned by a subterranean bass pulse, the track is airless and claustrophobic, like being trapped on a stricken submarine. It leads directly into a “Tugboat”, a muscular, hard as nails slice of industrial techno. It’s Pan Sonic rocking out, with sheets of white noise standing in for guitar solos, and enough punch to flatten a building. “Cannoning” is just as brutal – dubstep forged at a steelworks. “Cutter” is as hard as a chainsaw on plate steel. Everything is rounded off nicely by “Current 2”, a version of the opening track bathed in swathes of noise.
Cathodephase is a brutal album. There are moments of tenderness, but these are far outnumbered by some astonishing passages of brute force, and some true head-fuck moments. The middle third is an especially difficult listen, but it makes the pounding final third almost seem like a relief – a long, drawn out release of tension. It’s the duo’s heavy metal album, I guess. It must sound astonishing at high volume. I live in a flat – and I’d very much like to remain here – so it’s not something I’ve attempted.