Mika Vainio: Black Telephone of Matter

By , Aug 19 2009

Rating: 6 / Format: CD / Label: Touch

The Finnish master of minimalism and founding member of Pan Sonic returns for his fourth solo album on Touch with this seven-track journey through space, silence and noise. For me, Vainio has managed to develop a singular aesthetic in his musical production through a combination of factors: a command of silence, the reproduction of the elemental hum of machines – and an ability to harness these factors into a genuinely dynamic, compelling barrage of noise. Furthermore, Vainio’s Scandinavian heritage has perhaps helped him to better realize a vision of polarised natural forces – one where the crisp chill of the Arctic wind is set against the pure essence of electricity.

It’s interesting then that this album fails to really capture any of those elements in any satisfying way, although we do hear faint whispers of melody that hark a little at the formative period in his musical career. The seven tracks here carry all the aforementioned Vainio hallmarks, but with the emphasis on long periods of silence broken up by the odd, quixotic burst of noise here and there, it doesn’t quite capture the energy of works past. The title of the album suggests that communication might be a central preoccupation, but apart from the almost primeval buzz of static and sampled voices processed into oblivion, I found it hard to discern any such overarching narrative. Of course, there’s no doubt that Vainio’s work as Ø is more structured, while his eponymous creations have always based around freeform electronics and the spatial quality of sound, usually with an emphasis on live recordings.

The idea of communication does present itself again: ‘Bury A Horse’s Head’ in particular reminded me of Russian director Klimov’s sound design for his masterpiece Idi i Smotri, as squalls of sound penetrate a distant, oblique atmosphere, as if Vainio is attempting to set up a dialogue in space. To feel the full impact of Vainio’s music it needs to be played at very high volumes, and as is the case with so many other noise and sound-art pieces, listening through a regular home stereo doesn’t really do it justice. ‘In a Frosted Lake’ is full of ebbing high frequencies that pique the imagination, and on ‘A measurement of excess antenna temperature at 4080 Ml/s’ we are treated to faint echoes of padded rhythms, but the pervading narrative dissociation makes for an academic exercise at odds with Vainio’s most vital output. Album closer ‘The Breather’ is suitably climactic within its context, but is not enough to save what is, in general, a disappointing experience.

Toby Frith

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