If one were looking for a modern-day album that validates the Noise aesthetic as a force for further exploration, then you could do a lot worse than check out the sonic behemoth that is Pan Sonic's latest, "Kesto". No less a luminary that David Toop, when discussing his new book "Music, Silence And Memory" in this month's Record Collector, cites Pan Sonic as one of the "good examples of electronic musicians whose music is powerful and uncompromising, yet maintaining strong connections with familiar musical approaches". "Kesto" is actually four projects in one, as Finland's finest distill the essence of their muse, extracting and separating the constituent parts, presenting each facet on a separate CD. If we're talking about Noise in it's most literal sense, then disc 1 is where it can be found - in abundance! This presents Pan Sonic at their most violent; chiseling cubist sculptures from huge, granite-like blocks of distortion, or working their fingers through visceral lumps of static clay. My first experience of Pan Sonic was when I saw them live, supporting Suicide in 1998. I was impressed by the apparent level of improvisation - quite unusual for an electronic act - as they wrestled with raw sound: caressing, kneading, throttling....I can still feel that sense of struggle in their studio work; there's an immediacy, a sense of of-the-moment interaction between Man and Noise that suggests heroic, passionate labour. Although there's very little that could be described as 'melodic content' here, by anchoring this fearsome racket to electro-flavoured beats, Pan Sonic inject an accessible element to what would otherwise be an overpoweringly intense experience. I can detect a direct lineage to the late-70s Industrial/Post Punk school. Whilst "Diminisher" is clearly a homage to Suicide (evoking the spectre of the 'journey into hell' sequence from "Frankie Teardrop") and "Mayhem II" kicks with the sci-fi garage rock propulsion of "Nag Nag Nag", one of the strongest comparisons would be with SPK's "Information Overload Unit" album. Anyone who appreciates SPK 'classics' like "Emanation Machine R.Gie 1916" (like standing next to a jumbo jet engine at full throttle) or "Epilept:Convulse" (lurching drum machine with noise-stab punctuation) will feel at home here.
But for all disc 1's euphoric onslaught, it's disc 2 that's the real gem. The beats remain, but Pan Sonic ease off on the distortion boxes and focus on more sensual textures. The results are some of the most achingly beautiful dronescapes; the deepest rhythm-driven electronic meditation I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I'm not sure if I'm entirely certain what Matt Woebotnik meant when he spoke of 'Atmosphere' recently, but if you take it to mean a sense of space/place/environment then this stuff's got it in spades. The final track, "Arctic", is maybe one of the finest single pieces of music I've heard in, say, 10 years. Beginning with a simple four-note bass melody and pattering 808 drum pattern, the track swells into a huge corrosive drone of devastating emotional intensity that leaves me breathless and even a little tearful.
Disc 3 removes the beats and nearly all melodic content completely, delving into pure abstract ambient sound manipulation. Imagine if you removed the music from Joy Division's "Insight" and just kept Martin Hannant's lift-shaft atmospherics and you'll get the picture. Not as instantly gratifying as the previous discs, it is nevertheless a fascinating excursion. After a low sustained bass-tone, "Sewageworld" kicks-off with the sound of a toilet flushing (very "Faust Tapes"), then develops into a series of clammy drips, clangs and thuds, not dissimilar to the sound effects near the end of Kubrick's "2001:A Space Odyssey" when Dave Bowman arrives at his final destination. "Arches Of Frost" sounds like gigantic concrete cylinders rubbing against each other, whilst "Inexplicable" adds a subtle wash of background tones that reminds me of the imaginary environments of Eno's "On Land".
Disc 4 is one continuous hour-long drone piece - the point where Pan Sonic flatline into total minimal drift. Not the easiest of work to digest, I find it best to just crank it up and go about my business around the house, letting my attention wander in and out of the piece as it slowly absorbs into the very fabric of my home. Coming back to what Boyd Rice said, although it appears be a series of overlapping metallic sustained tones, I keep thinking I can here a female choral effect - but I'm not sure if its actually there or not. Weird.
Album of the year so far, no contest.
For a slightly more informed review of this album, check Micheal Heumann's over at Stylus Magazine.