Electronic music was not Sasu Ripatti’s first love.
He was originally a drummer, and after obsessing over classical percussion as a young child, he became fixated, as many of us did, with death metal, thrash and grindcore (he still quotes Napalm Death and Carcass as huge influences) as a teen, before settling on a passion for jazz that still informs much of his thinking. At 20 years old, he was drumming frequently in various ensembles in Oulu in Northern Finland, but quickly became bored with the repetition and the monotony of his chosen trade. He was desperate to separate himself from his peers and create music that truly felt like his own, and he felt like the jazz drumming he had saddled himself with was crippling his creativity. Inevitably, the drums were ditched, and Ripatti decided to go down a different path – he had experimented briefly with electronics in a number of live settings, and decided to all-in, trading the drum kit for a modest MIDI set-up.
Using electronic equipment was a means to an end, and Ripatti felt at this time that he was simply re-interpreting his jazz themes in a different, more original way. His knowledge of electronic music then was restricted to The Prodigy and “cheap German commercial techno,” and that’s the exact reason why his debut The Kind of Blue EP (1997) sounds so absolutely unique. In many ways, this short EP is a statement of intent, and surprisingly lays down many of the ideas that would become constants in Ripatti’s extensive canon. These concepts would eventually be bettered, but the The Kind of Blue EP functions as Ripatti’s Rosetta Stone.
From then on, Ripatti became far better acquainted with the electronic music world he’d thus far managed to avoid, and his next few years marked a particularly prolific time of what he remembers as “power producing.” The sheer amount of material Ripatti was churning out in his days and nights locked inside the studio no doubt gave way to the laundry list of pseudonyms, and the period saw him jump from one to the next with a surprising fluidity. The fantastic beat-driven Sistol (1999) was released under the Sistol moniker, while the rare vinyl-only Kemikoski (1999) was released under the name Conoco, which he had used early on for his very first experiments. The differences in these particular projects were subtle to the point of not being present at all, and although the Uusitalo pseudonym was committed initially to Ripatti’s ‘club’ tracks, after Vapaa Muurari (2000) it was abandoned in favour of Luomo. One of Vapaa Muurari’s standout tracks (‘Social Selection’) was even reworked on Luomo’s Vocalcity (2000).
It was the Vladislav Delay moniker that really took hold, with Ripatti’s low-key debut album Ele (1999) just pre-empting the global obsession with glitch in its various forms. This woozy collection of deft, tempered soundscapes was deconstructed and reworked into the slightly more high profile Entain (2000), which appeared on the influential Mille Plateaux label (home to the popular Clicks ‘n Cuts series), and cemented his status as an experimental vanguardist. The ambitious follow-up Anima (2001) was more successful still – quite some feat for an album that’s comprised of a single hour-long track.
In the midst of this experimental notoriety, Ripatti was concurrently plying a worthy trade in dance music. Thanks to an early hookup with Berlin’s Hardwax store, Ripatti ended up with two EPs and an album on the legendary Basic Channel-affiliated Chain Reaction imprint. These records weren’t a million miles from the grotty psychedelic improvisations of Ele, Entain and Anima, but contained just enough concessions to the dancefloor to have dub techno fans frothing at the mouth. It was with his vocal house-oriented Luomo project, however, that Ripatti would garner the most notoriety, and after the release of the massively successful Vocalcity and its lead single ‘Tessio’ (which was a modest hit), his two very distinct paths were set in stone.
In 2001, Ripatti moved from his native Finland to Berlin to live with long-term girlfriend and occasional collaborator Antye Greie (aka AGF). This locational shift marked a distinct change in the producer’s output both in frequency and in fidelity. The pristine, dub-flecked Vladislav Delay full-length The Four Quarters (2004) was a far cry from the hissing soundscapes of its predecessors, and Luomo album Paper Tigers (2006) was barely recognisable as Ripatti at all. There was a definite sense that Ripatti had become more and more confident with the club music he’d long managed to remain outside of, and as such the resulting material sounded markedly more functional, and far less unique.
The loose, jazz-rooted, unpredictable nature of those early releases was now a faint memory, and while the overcomplicated and overworked Whistleblower certainly has its moments of greatness, it wasn’t until Tummaa (2009) that we begin to hear traces of the old Vladislav Delay again. This might seem bizarre, being as the album is, on paper at least, the furthest removed from his earlier work. It was Ripatti’s attempt at an ensemble record, and along with Argentinian woodwind player Lucio Capece and Scottish soundtrack don Craig Armstrong (who collaborated with Ripatti in short-lived band The Dolls), he pieced together a collection of tracks that not only captured the essence of the ensemble, but pulled back some of the key stylistic traits that made his earlier records so memorable.
Collaboration would be a regular theme for Ripatti over the next few years, as he lent his estimable percussive flair to Basic Channel’s Moritz Von Oswald in the Moritz Von Oswald Trio and formed his own quartet with Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio, bassist Derek Shirley and Lucio Capece, but his finest achievement in recent years has undoubtedly been the one-two punch of Espoo (2012) and Kuopio (2012). Here Ripatti exhibited an enthusiastic experimental streak we hadn’t heard for years, and chanced upon a perfect mid-point between his much-loved early sketches and the intricately sculpted productions of his Berlin period. The fact that this material was recorded once again in Oulu can’t just be a coincidence.
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01. VLADISLAV DELAY
(THE KIND OF BLUE EP, 1997)
It’s fitting that Sasu Ripatti’s first proper release (1996’s Bright People CD was technically earlier, but, as an almost unavailable live recording, doesn’t really count) references Miles Davis’s jazz-fusion milestone. Sixteen years after its release, I’m still not sure exactly what he’s doing or where his ideas are coming from, and the record still sounds totally alien. Ripatti claims that he wasn’t listening to electronic music at all at this point, and that makes sense; ‘Siru’ is mercifully free of the era’s embarrassing electronic tropes, and comes across as something entirely different altogether, free from the generic shackles.
It doesn’t attempt to mimic the other experimental music of the mid-’90s either, and there’s a feeling that Ripatti was truly working in isolation, both geographically (Oulu is one of Finland’s most remote cities) and mentally. The sounds that he arrived on are unique even now, and the rough, rubbery percussive shuffle and the breathy wavering drones exhibited here swiftly came to define the Vladislav Delay sound, forming the backbone of his next slew of releases.
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Until its re-release in 2010, Ripatti’s 1999 Sistol album was a rare treat spoken of only in hushed tones. Ragged and decidedly lo-fi, Sistol’s greatest asset was Ripatti’s charming club music naivety. ‘Kotka’ is a prime example of this – a cautious flick-through might simply reveal a minimal 4/4 effort graced with some crackly glitches, but listen carefully from beginning to end and you’ll realise the track eerily slips in and out of time, heaving and flinching with an effortlessness that reveals Ripatti’s percussionist background. There’s no way this could actually have succeeded at 2am on a dancefloor unless you wanted to have people making their way to the door, but it’s hardly the point. Without realising it, Ripatti created an album that sounded more like a drug-induced club flashback than it did actual functional ‘dance’ music – and that’s a good thing.
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Conoco was Ripatti’s first solo moniker, and it was fitting that he attached it to Kemikoski, a record pieced together from material developed in 1996-97. Released on the Australian Sigma Editions imprint, the album is maybe the first hint we get at the scope of Ripatti’s vision – at least in terms of albums. He was obsessed with long-form pieces, and for me at least, Kemikoski sounds like a crucial step towards the stunning Ele/Entain/Anima run.
Steeped in delay, it’s ‘Ventola’ that stands out most as Ripatti allows the scratchy, overdriven rhythms to tumble over each other forming a buzzing, yelling polythythmic slop. As most of his peers were meticulously slotting their beats into MIDI sequencers and locking them into a 16th note quantize, it sounds as if Ripatti instead bashes everything out on the fly, allowing his emotions to talk much louder than any specific binary process.
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04. VLADISLAV DELAY
Multila was Ripatti’s entry into the exclusive Chain Reaction catalogue, and the label suited him well. While Ripatti’s disembodied soundscapes might not be the most obvious fit for a label so hooked into the Berlin scene, his two EPs and this album helped ingratiate him to a host of new listeners captivated by his incredibly subtle take on the sound. Ripatti’s beats weren’t so much submerged as they were non existent, and while his contemporaries were attempting to bury their past allegiances to techno or house in a fog of reverb and delay, he went for an entirely different approach, blending 4/4 rhythms into his now patented dense backdrop.
‘Raamat’ covers its barely audible kick drum in a slurry of tape-degraded hums, whispers and crackles, and is anchored on a bizarre choral whine from the very beginning. Like Sistol before it, there’s no sense that this could work in a club setting (unless said club was in fact an opium den) yet this time around Ripatti’s understanding of the form seems a little more assured.
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05. VLADISLAV DELAY
When I bought Entain I wasn’t sure what to make of it, I was eighteen years old and remember thinking that I should probably start by turning it up a bit, as I wasn’t certain I was hearing it correctly. Needless to say it was the beginning of the end. ‘Kohde’ is the album’s epic twenty-odd minute opener, and is a reworked version of the Ele highlight. Here, Ripatti strips his sound down to the bare bones – if you thought his work prior to this was minimal, then Entain might take you to the limit. Perseverance, however, will be rewarded; in 2000, I figured that since I’d spent the money on the CD, I needed to give it the time to sink in, and it was worth it.
Eventually the molasses-slow, sickly bass rumbles began to make sense and the album cautiously unfolded. It’s incredibly ambitious stuff, and a far cry from Ripatti’s dancefloor material. Even the beguiling Multila could barely prepare listeners for the deconstructed, druggy haze of Entain, and still today the record has the power to either alienate or enthrall.
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Writing Luomo’s debut album Vocalcity, Ripatti maintains he “had no idea about club music,” and that’s no doubt one of the reasons why the album holds together so well over a decade later. ‘Tessio’ was a turning point for the experimental musician, and, soon after its release on the Force Tracks imprint, became a staple in deep house sets across the world and appeared on countless faceless dance mixes.
In the context of the full album, however, it really comes into its own – Ripatti maintained the same careful narrative here that he did on each of his previous records, and when the anthemic house elements actually do emerge, they seem as if they’re pulling themselves out of a whirlpool of echoing voices and half-heard pop phrases.
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07. VLADISLAV DELAY
I’ll always see Anima and Entain as partners – they were both originally released on Mille Plateaux, and both highlighted Ripatti’s innate ability to deconstruct his own musical ideas to arrive on a sound that was defiant and impossibly unique. Anima is nowhere near as minimal than its predecessor, but no less enthralling. Comprised of one hour-long composition, it is probably Ripatti’s most compelling record, and certainly his most single-minded. It’s an album that, according to Ripatti, was influenced by recreational drugs and, bizarrely enough, the 1998 Sean Penn starrer Hurlyburly.
All too often music gets called out as being associated with one chemical experience or another, but here the influence is extremely apt – from the disjointed clanking percussion to the fragmented melodies and omnipresent bass. How Hurlyburly fits in is harder to comprehend, but Ripatti’s treatment of themes and motifs lends itself to a loose narrative structure, and the film’s self-absorbed cocaine-fuelled blather is an intriguing and unexpected stem.
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08. VLADISLAV DELAY
(DEMO(N) TRACKS, 2004)
The story behind Demo(n) Tracks is a sad one – it was the first album Ripatti made on moving to Berlin, but after almost finishing it the entire thing was lost due to a hard drive failure. All that remained were the customary set of trial runs or demos, so the decision was made to use them as basis for a new record, and retain the low-fidelity, scrappy quality that came with them not being intended for general consumption. What we ended up with is surprising and pleasing throwback to Ripatti’s early canon, and one that mirrors the pleasing haphazard experimentation of some of Ripatti’s most important experiments.
I picked ‘Kotilainen’, weirdly enough because it isn’t the album’s most obvious throwback. Here Ripatti allows himself the decadence of harmony, and it’s almost as traditionally ambient as he gets. There’s the lucid crumble of percussion echoing in the distance like a thunderstorm, but the main event here is the slow, melancholy pads, which are eventually joined by a crunching, pervasive breakbeat. Ripatti’s interest in hip-hop is widely documented, but he rarely allows the influence to surface in his compositions, which is makes this inclusion all the more important.
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09. VLADISLAV DELAY
‘ KUULA (KIITOS)’
Tummaa marks an intriguing departure for Ripatti, not only from his Huume label (it was released on the Leaf imprint in 2009) but also from the fathoms-deep electronic sound he had been perfecting since the mid-1990s. Compared to his previous album Whistleblower, it’s night and day, and with the assistance of soundtrack composer Craig Armstrong and woodwind virtuoso Lucio Capece, Ripatti manages to cross-pollinate his influences almost seamlessly.
The album isn’t always successful, but ‘Kuula (Kiitos)’ is a shining example of its themes. Craig Armstrong’s tear-inducing keys are blessed with occasional, careful punctuation from Ripatti’s clamorous electronics before the track slowly falls into a puddle of gritty, hoarse noise. It’s an intriguing sidestep for Ripatti, both melodically (think Blade Runner-era Vangelis) and stylistically, and paved the way for a slew of subsequent collaborations.
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10. VLADISLAV DELAY QUARTET
‘KILLING THE WATER BED’
(VLADISLAV DELAY QUARTET, 2011)
With Mika Vainio contributing electronics, Tummaa’s Lucio Capece on woodwind and Canadian bassist Derek Shirley taking on the low-end, it would have been hard for the Vladislav Delay Quartet to be a complete failure. Indeed, while the only moderately successful Moritz Von Oswald Trio all too often descend into uninteresting noodly nonsense, here Ripatti has the good sense to pepper the jazzier moments with bursts of Vainio-patented noise or fractured rhythms.
‘Killing the Water Bed’ is maybe the quartet’s homage to Norwegian avant-garde stalwarts Supersilent, and injects the familiar jagged jazz rhythms and wormy synths with Ripatti’s unshakable sense of entropy. As the track moves through its eight minutes, it becomes slowly more and more abstracted, with the squeal of tape echo and looped drums fighting against Capece’s clarinet for dominance. Jazz and electronica have long been uncomfortable bedfellows, and we should be thankful that Ripatti’s fusion is purposefully so.
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11. VLADISLAV DELAY
It would be incorrect to label Espoo as a return to form for Ripatti, but it was a surprise when it dropped last year. It marked the point where the producer managed to finally step out from the formidable shadow of his massively acclaimed early catalogue without losing the very essence of what makes Vladislav Delay so vital in the first place. While the EP’s predecessor Vantaa revisited old themes, Espoo sounds like a different beast altogether and lead track ‘Olari’ might be one of the most arresting tracks Ripatti has produced to date.
‘Olari’ is a foggy, rhythmic study, and Ripatti’s fingerprints are visible from the outset, but there’s fresh life and, more importantly, fresh inspiration infused into the track’s DNA. The following album Kuopio was almost as crucial, but Espoo stands as a brave and decisive step forward in Ripatti’s musical career. It might be apt to compare ‘Olari’ to Gas, Andy Stott or even Basic Channel, but there’s no escaping the fact that ‘Olari’ is pure, distilled Sasu Ripatti.
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