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Mika Vainio - Life (...It Eats You Up)

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Artist: Mika Vainio

Album: Life (...It Eats You Up)

Label: Editions Mego

Review date: Aug. 22, 2011

It’s true to a different degree with every release, but there’s no comfortable listening volume for Mika Vainio’s solo work. The Finn’s penchant for extremes of grating noise and disquieting ambience leaves the listener with a vexing problem: Adjust the volume to the loudest sounds and you miss the finer details that make up ambience; raise the volume to resolve those details and sooner or later, … well, then you’ve asked for it. Sometimes you need to ride the dial, but Vainio at his most intense has a way of making Whitehouse sound like aesthetes. Perhaps it’s how he keeps us from overthinking our visceral response to the music. With his latest release for the Editions Mego label, Life (...It Eats You Up), Vainio’s assault on an aural middle ground has reached a sort of apotheosis.

Life is supposed to be unique because Vainio based the album around guitar sounds. But those with even a passing knowledge of his work — whether under his own name, as half of the venerable Pan Sonic duo, or as Ø — will recognize his signature tone underneath the rumble. While Life seems designed to contrast with its neighbor, this year’s dulcet and guitar-based Heijastuva (as Ø), both albums bear the Vainio mark, striving for the pre-musical purity of unadulterated sine waves. Vainio’s musical ideal doesn’t seem too far removed from a very basic Pure Data patch, a bare-bones oscillator that cuts straight to the nervous system. Vainio hammers his music’s elemental quality home with silences, giving everything he touches — now including guitars — a trademark ultra-minimal sheen that corrals his substantial discography into a unified statement.

Evaluating Life isn’t easy because it’s an experience that’s necessarily laser-focused on the present. I connect to Vainio’s music most when blasts are counterbalanced by some obvious structure, and Life is initially challenging because the listener needs to search for the thread. Still, Life is far from an exercise in torture sonics and doesn’t have the painful Butoh quality of In the Land of the Blind One-Eyed Is King or Black Telephone of Matter; in some ways it’s his most varied solo record. And, as with any of Vainio’s better releases, it justifies its excesses to listeners who commit to paying attention. Or, at least, are willing to listen on a full-fledged stereo — crappy speakers render the album utterly useless.

Life finds equilibrium between the sheer violence of its digitally processed guitar feedback and a sense of organization in a number of ways, whether he’s dipping into cinder-block techno on “Mining” or convincingly covering The Stooges’ “Open up and Bleed.” The album opens with seven minutes of wuthering piles of abyssal feedback before launching into a digital Sunn 0))) ostinato. It’s a breathtaking drop. The two tracks that follow transition from metallic Albini guitar slashing to beat-driven agro-swagger that recalls Pan Sonic. Life wanders into abstract, almost electro-acoustic territory for some of its second half, but ends with the enveloping spiral of “Ravenous.”

Because Vainio’s proud contradictions flow from a singular idea of what music is, every one of his releases holds some interest, but Life belongs with the best. Some days, I might be quicker to reach for Heijastuva or Vladislav Delay Quartet to get a fix, but Life is easily the most inventive of the bunch — a point of entry for a great and treacherous discography.

By Brandon Bussolini

Other Reviews of Mika Vainio

In the Land of the Blind One-Eyed is King

Aineen Musta Puhelin (Black Telephone of Matter)

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