Surely there must have been some risk in bringing together Mika Vainio, formerly one half of post-techno destructo-craftsmen Pansonic, and the lord of thunderous, ear-splitting doom riffs Stephen O’Malley, of SUNN O)))! I mean, wasn’t there a chance that two such intense, brooding wagers of sonic warfare would set off some sort of alchemical cataclysm if brought together? On the evidence of Through A Pre-Memory, the apocalypse was not unleashed when they combined as Äänipäa, but with Khanate’s Alan Dubin joining on vocals, they didn’t half come fucking close.
Which is not to say that Through A Pre-Memory is some massive trawl through the netherworld of sub-bass drone and scorched-earth industrial techno. Both Vainio and O’Malley have gradually transcended their roots to subliminally take in wider palettes, from jazz to avant-garde composition, via musique concrète and psychedelia. Recent releases on O’Malley’s Mego-sponsored Ideologic Organ imprint, for example, have included Eyvind Kang and Jennifer Kenney’s crystalline folk, the multifaceted electronica of Mats Lindstrom and Iancu Dumitrescu’s spectral noise compositions. Far from being the extremist misanthropes the more narrow critics might describe them as, Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley are perpetually curious sonic explorers, and Äänipäa gives them the opportunity to push this curiosity to its natural conclusion.
Having said all the above, it is unsurprising that Through A Pre-Memory‘s opening salvo, ‘Muse’ doesn’t start in a hail of noise, but rather in a style best described as “patient”, as a muffled, apparently sampled, voice intones in what sounds like German (but could be Dubin), buffeted by throbbing deep bass notes, martial spurts of robotic percussion and looming, suspended doom guitar chords. The mood on ‘Muse’ is considered, with O’Malley and Vainio taking their time to explore both silence and noise in alternating expanses of sound and near-sound, with every detail displayed in stark relief. There are gristly electronic lines, shimmering synth lines and crashing riffs, all seeping in and out of a blank, abstract canvas of quietude. It’s both startling and absorbing, the perfect demonstration of sonic sleight-of-hand, because twelve minutes in O’Malley ups the ante with some trademark extended riffs as Alan Dubin joins the fray, screaming himself raw over a girl he waited for but lost, his delivery both terrifying and overflowing with pathos. Vainio, with his repetitive beats, and O’Malley, with his crunching feedback snarls, never rush matters, instead allowing this moody slab of introspection to inch inevitably towards collective psychosis under Dubin’s wild-eyed invectives over 21 claustrophobic minutes. Metal-infused music hasn’t been this deliriously overwrought since Khanate’s Clean Hands Go Foul had a belated release in 2009. Vainio may be adding texture, but with Dubin’s rasp, this is pure, unrestrained, blackened doom.
‘Towards All Thresholds’ and ‘Mirror Of Mirror Dreams’ give the Finn more space to influence the overall sound, with drifting drones superimposed on top of each other ad infinitum and hypnotic post-techno grooves dominating the former; whilst crystalline synths and gravelly guitar lines dance a slovenly waltz over the near-18 minutes of the latter, as if the two tracks act as opposing motifs on the soundtrack of an avant-garde horror movie. ‘Watch Over Stillness/Matters Principle”, however, returns matters to the bleak, abstract scorched earth of ‘Muse’, and is the better for it, with Alan Dubin again at the centre of this grim, perversely operatic suite. Again, Mika Vainio excels at setting out pounding, yet focused, drum machine beats and shadowy electronic textures, leaving it to O’Malley to frame Dubin’s multi-tracked ravings with his guitar, as he did so well – sorry if I’m labouring the point – in Khanate. The intermittent stillness evinced on ‘Muse’ is pushed to its apex here, as the track drifts almost listlessly at times, a hazy fog of imagined shades and potential explosions. When they do burst forth, they’re all the more potent from the anticipation.
I’ve recently been listening to a number of early records released on ECM, that formidable bastion of avant-garde jazz and minimalist modern composition. Of course, Äänipäa do not actually sound like Jan Garbarek or Ralph Towner, but, in their own chaotic, ever-so-slightly-demented way, they espouse something of the German label’s early aesthetic, namely a desire to play with the contours of volume and silence, and where those two phenomena overlap. This is techno-metal, so it’s more boneheaded than jazz, but the respective backgrounds of Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley mean the above comparison is not such a leap. This is noise music with brains, and another album on Editions Mego that challenges our perceptions of music and sound. Oh, and it will fucking rip your ears off at full volume.