In Praise of Pan Sonic

Jun 17 2010 Published by under Music, Personal

I’m no musician; I’m more of a dabbler, really.  But I create stuff and share it with others.  One of the most common complaints I’ve received about my music is that it is too sparse–that there aren’t enough things going on.  “It needs something….else,” a friend once told me.  When pressed, he couldn’t identify exactly what was missing–just that there wasn’t enough sound there (or there there, perhaps).  And he was probably right, but the problem with creating music is that each element added to a mix needs to blend with all the other elements.  Add something, and suddenly everything else sounds different.  More often than not, those added sounds just create a muddled mess.

It is so easy to create complex music today.  There are endless tracks available in even the cheapest audio workstations; there are endless plug-ins that can be used to make every individual track different; and there are seemingly endless combinations within each plug-in to customize sounds even further.  For many musicians (especially novices like myself), it seems almost like cheating if we don’t stretch the software to its breaking point, adding tweaks and overdubs and all sorts of variations to every single song, every single track, every single plug-in–whether they need it or not.

Most of the time, songs don’t need that level of complexity.  A song is usually a pretty simple thing: a melody, a beat, a hook.  But once those elements are figured out, the creative process kicks in, and it’s hard to stop tweaking, enhancing, expanding.  Back when it cost real money to record music (studio time and all), there were good reasons to stop tweaking.  Now?  Money is no object; time is no object.  But the end result often suffers.

Because I’m keenly aware of the pitfalls of overproduction, I find myself drawn to music that resists such complexity.  I love artists that craft interesting music out of the most elemental sounds, artists who recognize that less is way more interesting (and more challenging) than more.  I’m not talking about classical music or folk music that is designed for a quartet or a piano or acoustic guitar; that stuff is fine, but it’s designed for simplicity.  There’s no challenge there.  Rather, I’m talking about music that has been deliberately pared down to its basic elements.  I’m talking about artists who create unique and memorable sounds and then have the guts to leave those sounds alone. I’m talking about artists like Young Marble Giants, whose entire output consists of simple beats, two-finger synth melodies, and simple guitar licks–crafted in utterly beautiful, brilliant ways.  I’m talking about The White Stripes, who create epics out of a guitar, a drum set, and a voice.  I’m talking about Tom Waits songs featuring an organ, a trash can, and his nearly-dead voice.  I’m talking about Chris Watson’s wonderful recording of a cheetah’s growl.  I’m talking about the minimalist orchestra music of Amiina.  I’m talking about The Caretaker’s and William Basinski’s slowly-dying recordings of the past.

Most of all, however, I’m talking about Pan Sonic, the anchorite monks of electronic noise whose last album, Gravitoni, is released this month.  If anyone embodies this aesthetic, it’s them.

My introduction to Pan Sonic came in 1999 with their third album, A.  I was familiar with a lot of electronic music at that time–the typical stuff like Orbital, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, etc–but when the first hums and snaps of “Maa” (first track on A) came out of my speakers, something clicked.  This is it, I thought at the time.  This is what I’d been searching for (even if I hadn’t been aware of the search until that moment).  I was amazed by the simplicity–low, resonating, overpowering tones; intense buzzing and wheezing noise; and especially the clean, crisp, snapping click beats.  This is electronic music, music crafted from the very elements of electricity.   I was enthralled.  I went back and got their first two works, Vakio and Kulma.  I picked up their live recordings.  I picked up the solo work by Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen.  As each new album came out, I would spend weeks dissecting every second.  I’d post reviews on my web site.  I’d spread the word to whomever would listen.  Before their four-CD set Kesto came out, I scoured the web looking for information on the work and then forwarded that information on to Phinnweb, the guys who ran the only Pan Sonic web site on the web.  In fact, I scoured the Phinnweb Pan Sonic discography page and bought everything I could that had anything to do with the band, including a DVD that featured Pan Sonic performing on an instrument created by legendary Finnish electronic composer Erkki Kurrenniemi.  The DVD was PAL-encoded, so I went out and bought a DVD player that played PAL disks (great investment–that thing let me buy the complete Blake’s 7 series that is only available on PAL).

Pan Sonic uses custom made instruments (made by Jari Lehtinen, a friend and unofficial “third member” of the group).  I don’t know much about these, but I’m guessing they follow the rules for most synthesizers and drum machines–they use oscillators, filters, and envelopes; they feature sine and square waves and different types of noise.  These various elements, configured in different ways, produce beats, tones, noises, and chords–the bread and butter of electronic music.  But in Pan Sonic’s hands, these instruments manage to create beats, tones, noises, and chords that are richer, sharper, more interesting, and more “pure” than anyone else’s.  Take the snare sound in “Vaihtovirta” off Aaltopiiri, for example.  On the surface, it’s just a snap, like a thousand other snap sounds you’ll hear if you listen to enough electronic music.  But listen again–there’s a warmth to that snap (created, most likely, by a built-in reverb in the instrument).  At full volume (Pan Sonic’s preference), the snap sounds like a microscopic bullet shot into a thin sheet of ice.

What makes this sound even more impressive is way in which Pan Sonic presents it–sparsely.  Their music is incredibly simple: some beats, some tones, and some noise.  There are usually only about four or five different sounds at work in a Pan Sonic song; some of the sounds are in the high frequencies, some in the mid, and some in the low.  Rarely do sounds overwhelm one another; each one is given space to build and to inhabit its frequency range.  As a result, that snare snap in “Vaihtovirta” is wonderful because we can focus on it so easily.  I find interesting sounds far more exciting than interesting songs, so this focus on sound alone is infectious.  That’s not to say that Pan Sonic’s music merely fills space, however; the songs and the song structures are equally compelling, often moving from silence to noise and back again within a simple three-or-four minute opus.  This was made possible, in part, because Pan Sonic usually recorded their music live in studio–unlike almost every other electronic artist (or just artist, for that matter, since the advent of computer recording equipment).  That live feel in their music allowed for spontaneity, to be sure, but it also brought a freshness to the feel of the music–the sense that only music created in a moment can provide (mistakes and all).

Above all, however, I am amazed by Pan Sonic’s consistency.  Everything they have every created is memorable.  Yes, their music shares some common elements across every one of their albums, and some might call that repetitive.  However, I don’t.  To me, they are craftsmen who use the same tools and the same elements to create as many different, unique, and ingenious works that they can.  Their biggest album, the four-CD Kesto, was founded upon the triptych works of Francis Bacon, who routinely created three different paintings on the same subject as a way to explore the many faceted nature of those subjects.  To me, Pan Sonic’s music (not only Kesto but all of their works) took up a similar exercise–to explore how many different ways they could use the same basic tools to create music.  If you listen to all of their music, from 1995’s Vakio to 2010’s Gravitoni, you’ll hear an incredible range of sounds and musical styles, from minimalist techno to maximalist noise.

And now we have an answer to the question: how many years can Pan Sonic use the same elements to create new musical ideas? The answer is: 15.  Yes, Gravitoni is (apparently) their last album as a group.  The two have been solo artists for some time now, and they both plan to go their separate ways to pursue their individual interests.  But before they went away entirely, they gave us an amazing album that functions like a concluding chapter in the Pan Sonic story.  Like all good conclusions, this one summarizes everything that came before and offers a final parting thought by which to remember their legacy.  So spread across this album’s eleven songs and 52 minutes, there are beautiful and ugly and terrifying beats; overpowering caverns of noise; deep, gurgling bass lines; waves of sonic steam; and sine waves and square waves and flashing waves and distressed waves and on and on.  Some of the highlights include “Corona,” which must be the audio equivalent to a voyage into the sun; “Radio Qurghonteppa,” which features a killer bass line (grinding gears churning through dead bodies, I think); and “Kaksoisvinokas/Twinaskew,” an eerie song that includes actual vocal samples (very rare in the Pan Sonic world).

And then there’s the last track, “Pan Finale” (see above), which really does sound like a finale, encompassing every single one of these sounds in an almost montage-like way to end the album and their career, starting with propulsive beats, adding in techno noodles and waves of spooky tones, then pushing these tones further and further towards a wall of noise and distortion, grinding and churning around the beat, washing us in a bath of white death.  This is followed by a pause, where the beats and noodles reemerge; followed again by a powerful buzzsaw noise of pain, which dies into a long, slow tone that moves from left to right and back again as it dies.  And, in the very end, at the very last second, there’s a snap, a crunch, a burst of noise–and then silence.

In all, Gravitoni is an amazing end to an amazing career.  I’ve been listening to it for over a week and find myself wanting to go back and re-listen everything that this band has created.  To me, as a wanna-be musician, their music is both inspiring and intimidating.  I hope someday to create beats that are half as good as theirs–and when I do, I hope I have the guts to then leave those beats alone to grow and build and to live within my songs.  Mostly, however, I’m humbled by their ability to follow a musical path for such a long time and with such amazing success.

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