Andrew Ryce examines some of the pivotal moments in the late Finnish electronic music pioneer's extensive catalogue.
By himself and together with his longtime musical partner Ilpo Väisänen as Pan Sonic, Vainio made visceral, haunting and often downright scary music that harnessed technology both familiar and brand new. Known for using homemade or modified electronic instruments, Pan Sonic were interested in getting the newest or weirdest sounds from their hardware. The result was music that didn't—and still doesn't—sound like anything else out there, more focused on the physicality of sound and how it could make you feel than the traditional markers of rhythm or melody.
Pan Sonic were known for taking the ideas around them—industrial, IDM, techno and dub—and rewiring them into minimalist and brutal sonic sculptures. On the duo's most idiosyncratic work, it often sounded as if you were listening to the electricity powering the machine itself. Over time, their work grew more aggressive while Vainio explored beautiful ambient as Ø and a metal-inspired style of electronic music under his own name.
Vainio was so prolific from the '90s until his death that even most diehard fans might not have heard every one of his releases or know about every single project. Besides Pan Sonic and Ø, there was his early '80s noise project Gagarin Kombinaatii, the EBM-inspired Corporate 09, short-lived dance-leaning projects like Kentolevi and Philus, a group with Suicide's Alan Vega called Vainio / Väisänen / Vega, and collaborations with artists like Autechre's Sean Booth and Japanese noise master Keiji Haino. You could spend months poring over his discography and still not hear everything.
Across all these releases, there are common themes and motifs. A love of all things heavy, borrowing from metal and noise but shedding any macho posturing. An obsession with extreme frequencies, both high and low, tones could that pierce your ears or make your stomach rumble. A taste for surprisingly delicate, often eerie melodies that made his ambient work stand out. And a love of ferocious tidal waves of noise that only he (and Väisänen) could conjure up, a sonic signature that made for an instantly recognizable fireball of sound.
In this short guide to Vainio, I've gathered some of my favourites of his from over the years. It's by no means a definitive list of his best works, nor is it a neat summary of his career. Instead, this list is a look at all the things Vainio could do, and an idea of what he pioneered that has influenced all kinds of contemporary artists from across the electronic music spectrum.
Released two years ago on Puu, a sub-label of Tommi Grönlund & Vainio's Sähkö Recordings, 83-85 compiles music by Gagarin Kombinaatti, an industrial trio Vainio was part of in the early '80s. The fidelity is rough and the approach unusually broad, but on "Survos" you can hear some of the ideas that would flower from the '90s onward: pulsing waves of sound, intense dynamics, a general sense of unease and anger. Somewhere between Throbbing Gristle and the kind of power electronics that wouldn't be invented until years later, Gagarin Kombinaatti is proof that Vainio was pioneering brutal electronic music from day one.
Metri is arguably Vainio's first major work, a double album packed with an absurd amount of imagination and innovation somewhere in the vague framework of early '90s IDM and techno. It's hard to pick a standout, but "Twin Bleebs" comes close. Built on a 4/4 pulse, it sounds like techno but its unflinchingly bold tones and blank-faced repetition hint at the mundane work of machinery rather than dance floors. The same goes for how the track develops, with a synth lead that's more a vibrating tone than a melody.
Vainio released his first recordings with Väisänen under the name Panasonic, which the duo used until they were threatened with a lawsuit by the electronics manufacturer. (A persistent anecdote says that Väisänen chose the name hoping for a sponsorship.) The early Panasonic material presented some of the duo's most mind-blowing yet subtle music, electrical hum and signal interference molded into waves of sound. "Teurastamo"—named after a slaughterhouse—is taken from the duo's second album, Kulma, which showed their sound hardening into the combustible power electronics it would become.
1996 was an intense year of creativity for Vainio, as part of Panasonic and on his own. His only record as Kentolevi is cherished among Vainio devotees, and rightly so: it presents some of his most punkish material of the '90s, where all those fuzzy tones were collected into one midrangey wallop. All four tracks offer similar rotted-out takes on techno, but the title track is special, with its undulating basslines—which bunch up at the ends of the bars into forceful shoves—sounding like sped up Panasonic.
Headphones (Ø Remix)
Vainio wasn't the most prolific remixer, but you could count on him to reinterpret tracks in a way that only made sense to him (much like Pan Sonic's homemade equipment). Of all these remixes, his take on Björk's "Headphones" is probably the most distinctive. He builds cobwebs of humming tones, some audible, some not, with only a blinking electrical pulse as a foundation. At first Björk's voice is reduced to a distorted whisper, like it's coming through a telephone receiver, but it's a testament to Vainio that she isn't the main attraction even once her voice bursts into full clarity. "Headphones" is loaded with sounds you feel more than you hear—listen to it on good speakers and you'll be transported to a world you might not even have realized was there. That dedication to a full body, full-spectrum experience is another of Vainio's legacies.
Philus was an alias that also emerged in 1996, though the project's definitive record came out two years later. This name was reserved for what could be considered early experiments in minimal techno, some of Vainio's most straightforward material and certainly his most approachable for dance music fans. "Acidophilus" is the famous one from this EP, where Vainio works gurgly acid into his crisscrossing mess of cables, but "Ionit" is the big moment, a straight-ahead techno jam with the kind of spatial tricks and bright FM synth sounds we associate with techno today.
Red Lights Down
If Vainio remixes were rare, then work with vocalists was even rarer. But when the opportunity came to collaborate with Alan Vega of Suicide—one of Pan Sonic's biggest influences—they took it, producing two albums with the legendary singer. 1998's Endless is the pick, and particularly "Red Lights Down," which feels like a Suicide track reverse-engineered for Vainio and Väisänen's world. Vega rides jumpy synth lines like electrons cruising down a circuit, and his nervy yelps match the classic Pan Sonic mood.
By 2000's Aaltopiiri album, Vainio and Väisänen had become Pan Sonic, and the expanse of their music had increased. Taking on some of the subsonic ideas of that Björk remix, the album is a masterpiece of dynamics and clarity, exemplified by the almost-techno "Liuos." One of Vainio's central contrasts surfaces here: the nexus of brooding bass, contorted rhythms and crystal clear chime melodies. It's almost unnervingly calm, but you can hear menace lurking in the vibrations—even Vainio's prettiest work had something sinister about it.
Monneista Viimeinen / Last Of Catfishes
With 2005's Kantamoinen, Vainio revived his Ø alias in earnest as a way to explore his more ambient impulses. The album presents some of Vainio's most affecting and forlorn melodies, like "Monneista Viimeinen / Last Of Catfishes," which creeps along in a broken drum pattern as minor key synth leads paint an uncomfortable backdrop. Kantamoinen revealed that Vainio's gifts weren't limited to sound design. He could write melodies as haunting as any electronic artist.
Set The Controls To The Heart Of The Sun
Rock and metal rears its head in different aspects of Vainio's music, from his love of noise to the grizzled guitar distortion of his latter-day solo albums, but rarely did it make its presence known like on this Pink Floyd cover from 2008. The term "cover" should be used loosely, however. His version conjures the original's psychedelic humidity and vaguely sketches out its main riff, but other than that it's pure Vainio: grotty basslines, otherworldly chimes and an arrangement that feels both close to the chest and epically expansive.
Gravitoni was Pan Sonic's final album proper (it would be followed by some live recordings and soundtracks). Almost 20 years into their collaboration, Vainio and Väisänen went out by self-immolation, presenting their most uncompromising and destructive full-length ever. "Pan Finale" is the climax of a ferocious record, and it embodies the paradox at the heart of the project: there are huge tidal waves of noise, but the way they crest and ebb seems almost restrained. This is where you could hear the influence of dub music, which Väisänen would explore in his solo work. It's all about the constant introduction and subtraction of musical elements, as if each one were too hot to hold onto for long.
Open Up And Bleed
In 2011, Vainio struck out under his own name and made an album that almost qualifies as heavy metal. With big, live-sounding drums that bring to mind Mick Harris's Scorn project, Vainio laid out a hellish sound world of revving distortion, harsh resonance and martial drumming. You could reach for the 13-minute opening track "In Silence A Scream Takes A Heart"—one of the most harrowing tunes in Vainio's catalogue—but my choice cut is "Open Up And Bleed," which puts Vainio's signature staggered rhythms in a post-rock framework. It has all the space, tension and intensity of a Pan Sonic track, but delivered in a harsher, more direct style.
Vainio followed up Life with an even heavier record, Kilo, which is the one that more recent converts will know best. "Load" offers another way to look at the power of Vainio's music. It moves at about the same dubby pace with the same scowl as his other music, but the sounds themselves are so full and so harsh that their physical presence in headphones or on speakers is immense. Listening to Vainio shred frequencies in the middle of "Load" is like listening to a virtuosic guitar player rip through a solo.
One of the more overlooked aspects of Vainio's career is drone. Not just ambient, but drone—the hypnotic power of long, repetitive tones, which ties into his love of electrical hum and buzz. His late-period collaboration with Joachim Nordwall was a landmark in his drone career, featuring long, rumbling epics in the vein of Sunn O))) along with Mille Plateaux-style experiments. On "Praseodymium," Vainio's prickly textures are cushioned by Nordwall's gorgeous and emotive melodies, like the Ø project with its guard let down.
One of Vainio's last major solo recordings, Konstellaatio is the apex of the Ø project. Inspired by Vainio's childhood memories, it offers an unusual look into his human side, and features some of his most evocative melodies. The opening track, "Otava," is the gateway into this world, and with its watery synths and limping beat, it's one of the most haunting things Vainio ever did. Listening back to the album, in the wake of his death, it points to another facet of his work that the restless artist was just beginning to explore. And though the experiments with frequency, resonance and noise lived on in soundtrack projects like Atomin Paluu and Mannerlaatta, Konstellaatio makes for a fine swan song from an artist who never let himself be defined by an idea, sound or technique for too long. Like all of Vainio's best work, it felt alien, unrecognizable and familiar all at once. He had a way of making even the most technical or abstract of music carry his own strange, indelible personality.
Brian Kolada contributed to this piece.