Pan Sonic, Vienna Secession, 11 December 2009

The first time I came across Pan Sonic (or Panasonic, as they were then known) was on a cold evening in 1994, in an empty outdoor car park in East London. On that occasion, they (at least one had to assume it was them, since they were never actually seen) had stationed themselves inside an armoured car belonging to Jimmy Cauty of the KLF, which had supposedly been customized to make it into a sonic weapon. This vehicle was driven repeatedly around the car park in circles, with sounds (supposedly generated by Panasonic) emanating from it. The whole thing was tiresome in the extreme, since these sounds were nowhere near as loud as they should have been, while there was nothing at all to see. A failure, then, in both its acoustic and visual aspects. But then one has come to expect failure and empty gestures from Paul Smith, the smug and irritating drudge responsible for the Disobey Club (of which that Panasonic event was part, and a number of other evenings of which I attended in the mid-90s), Blast First Records and sundry other cooler-than-thou ventures.

A couple of years later I found myself on tour, no less, with Panasonic. On the same tour bus, to be exact, since they were the support group on Swans’ final tour of Europe in 1997, on which I was the merchandise seller (see here for a brief reminiscence). An unlikely pairing, you might think, but in fact their pummelling and uncompromising electronic noise was a highly effective curtain-raiser to the main event – even after listening to it twenty-odd times as I did. With their spare and lugubrious humour, Mika and Ilpo were also excellent travelling companions on the long drives from show to show. During a lengthy tour-bus debate on the merits and demerits of tenpin bowling, Mika responded to a criticism that the scoring system was perhaps unnecessarily complex with the doleful comment “It does not matter what is the score.”

Another twelve years, and Pan Sonic (having lost an ‘a’) wound up in Vienna for what was apparently their penultimate live concert ever (the last one being next week in Athens). The venue was also notable, being a tiny club in the basement of the Secession building. After a long wait outside to get in and an interminable support slot, the duo came on and proceeded to shake the Secession to its foundations. Augmented by unnerving rhythmic patterns, the heavy drones and sine waves were wildly diverse and crushingly loud. Mika and Ilpo sat at their dial-strewn consoles, seemingly generating all their sounds from analogue equipment (there didn’t seem to be any computers in use). The only visual accompaniment was a flickering back-projection of a single thick vertical line, which mutated in response to the music (they had used the exact same visual on the Swans tour). This stuff was disorientating yet vastly entertaining, its endless arcs and twists the product of fierce and highly musical intelligence.

Ether column, December 2008

For once I don’t have any concerts at all to recommend in Vienna this month; there just doesn’t seem to be much going on here as the year draws to a close. Come with me instead, then, to Bratislava, where those willing to make the short journey across the Slovakian border will be rewarded with a festival featuring some of the key names in European experimental music.

Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that my top tip for the Next Festival is the German free improvising saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, here performing in his well established power trio with bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmueller. By the end of this year Brötzmann will have played over 100 gigs in Europe, Japan, North and South America, a remarkable achievement for a musician of any age, let alone one of 67 whose performances are as high-energy and draining as this man’s are. But that is Brötzmann’s way: to play until he can play no more, because there’s nothing else for him to do.

Other artists appearing at the festival this year include Phil Minton, Ilpo Vaisanen and Hildur Gudnadottir. Minton is a great English eccentric, a free improvising vocalist who has spent the last thirty years exploring the possibilities of the human voice as a sound source. In Bratislava he will be presenting his unique Feral Choir project, a workshop followed by a performance with non-professional singers. As Minton says, “anyone who can breathe is capable of producing sounds that give a positive aesthetic contribution to the human condition.” Vaisanen is one half of Finnish electronic duo Pan Sonic, a forbiddingly loud and fierce unit who blend industrial-strength drones with ear-bleeding techno rhythms. When I lived in London in the early 90s I once spent a memorable evening watching them drive around an empty car park in an armoured vehicle which had been kitted out with a massive speaker system and was spitting out wave after wave of abstract noise. It made a lot of sense at the time.

Gudnadottir is a classically trained cellist from Iceland. She played on Pan Sonic’s most recent album and also arranged the choir that graced In the Shadow of the Sun, the live soundtrack to a film by the late Derek Jarman which was performed by Throbbing Gristle at the 2007 Donaufestival in Krems. She, Vaisanen and Dirk Dresselhaus (a.k.a. Schneider TM) will be performing together at the festival as Angel, a collaborative project which has so far released two albums on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label. And that’s your lot for 2008.