For around seven minutes, you wonder where you are. Extended, sharp, contorted droning outbursts emanate from somewhere, wrestling either to cling to or break free from their origin. It’s like witnessing an alien voice learn how to speak. And then, seemingly from nowhere, IRRUPTION! the music transformed into a massive doom expansion moving with the grace and momentum of tectonic plates. It’s a breathtakingly glorious but agonising moment, one that says everything about what Mika Vainio is setting out to explore on his new album, Life (…It Eats You Up).
This album hurts. Which is not to say that it hurts the ears (although, at times, they take no little pounding), but rather that every one of its 58 minutes comes from a place of sheer, horrified and enraged pain. One hasn’t heard an essay as stark and aggressively wounded as this since Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. Indeed, the first example of regularity on the album, third track ‘Mining’, is built on a rhythmic loop reminiscent of NIN’s ‘Closer’. Those familiar with Vainio’s work in Pan Sonic may expect otherwise, but beats are emphatically not what this album is about; if anything, their presence can appear disorienting, begging the question of what they bring to the otherwise untethered violence. For it is violence with which one is confronted most—although the nature of the confrontation is one of half-spent energy, angular and wretched.
Despite their size, some of the album’s most acidic tracks are the three miniatures, ‘Throat’, ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Cage’, the longest of which is a mere 2½ minutes. They are each deeply unsettling, presenting a disparate collection of rude, brash fragments and grindings with no attempt at contextualisation. ‘Cage’, in particular, takes the form of an apparent field recording that sends the imagination to a profoundly distressing place, and thereby becomes one of the most horribly memorable snatches of audio you’re ever likely to hear. Vainio allows not a trace of rhythm into these excruciating tracks, but elsewhere he uses them as a crutch upon which to lay the considerable weight of the music.
None of them are brisk, neither are they necessarily dependable; the aforementioned ‘Mining’ seems unassailable until its closing moments, when the beats don’t just break down but even lose their stereo focus. ‘Open up and Bleed’ – a fitting description for all the music on this album – uses its laboured beat loops to underpin a gutsy assortment of razor-sharp guitar riffs, violently hurled outwards; however, this too finds itself bereft at its conclusion, lost and bewildered in a muted, claustrophobic space. Most sporadic of all, coming from somewhere far beneath them both, is ‘And Give Us Our Daily Humiliation’, featuring a laceration for an overture, subsequently piecing itself together from a raw collection of cut-up and distorted beat and bass elements, seemingly dragged from an analogue past.
Vainio does display traces of introspection amidst the agony; ‘Crashed’ is a contrastingly delicate track, its softer, more distant strains (which haven’t been heard since the album’s strange beginnings) allowing the guitar to speak in a more immediately recognisable way. This is an isolated incident, however, and the album’s concluding tracks return headlong to the more reactionary, even pugilistic demeanour to which Vainio feels irrevocably drawn.
‘Conquering the Solitude’ lives up to its heroic title, the guitar’s initially wild swingings as from within a sealed chamber finally giving way to a warm, rich, liberated fizz of fuzz, encrusted with all manner of sonic detritus. And for the denouement, a semblance of rhythm returns in ‘A Ravenous Edge’, the beat elements thumping out in the aural equivalent of an infinity cove. Massive buzzing, grinding drones assemble around this thin, punctuating epicentre, affecting an air of tormented solemnity, like some sort of doomed ritual. Concluding in halting metallic sounds, the album finally ends in a weird series of electronic pulses, suggesting life doesn’t just eat you up, it leaves you utterly unhinged.
This is not an easy listen; hearing inner anguish writ as harrowingly large as this is not for the faint-hearted or empathetically-challenged. But there is a glory in Mika Vainio’s music, a glory that can perhaps only emerge from such an effluvial, white-hot torrent of honesty as this, scalding the ears and the mind, no doubt, but, just possibly, attaining some kind of purification, or clarity, or even just relief. Better out than in.
(This article was originally published on Fluid Radio.)