Pan Sonic: Kesto

Tim O'Neil

Pan Sonic's taproot runs deep into the soil of early industrial music, with a heavy debt owed to such obvious giants as Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten and Suicide.

Pan Sonic


Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2004-05-18
UK Release Date: 2004-05-17

I don't think concepts such as "indulgence" or "overkill" even exist in the same universe as Pan Sonic. The very idea of releasing a quadruple album in the age of the 80-minute compact disc seems mentally disturbed on the face of it. This is especially true in an age when some of rock and hip-hop's best and brightest have trouble filling a disc past even the 40-minute mark without drowning the listener in filler. But Kesto is a different beast entirely from just about anything else in the entire spectrum of pop music. It is what it is, for better or for worse.

Pan Sonic's taproot runs deep into the soil of early industrial music, with a heavy debt owed to such obvious giants as Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten and Suicide. But in the ten years or so since Pan Sonic's (formerly Panasonic, until an inevitable cease-and-desist letter) foundation they've moved away from the straight electronic template of modern industrial/electronic music. They certainly make electronic music, but they don't make it like you've ever heard before. They have their own homemade instruments, analog tone generators, and use more traditional digital samplers only sparingly. They record live to DAT tape with no overdubs, sequencing or postproduction at all.

Kesto was formed in the wake of an exhausting eight-week world tour which found the group circling the globe and playing exotic locals from Singapore to Tijuana. The tour came to an abrupt halt when Mika Vainio, one half of the group (along with Ilpo Vaisanen), fell ill as a result of the rigors and stress of constant travel. After a lengthy recuperation, the Finnish duo reconvened in their adopted homeland of Barcelona to set about recording the music that would eventually become Kesto.

The first disc, composed of tracks with names such as "Mutator" and "Mayhem" (in three parts, no less), is probably the most accessible of the four. Anyone who's listened to Nine Inch Nails or early EN will find something to like here, as the group uses the buzzing of radio static and air raid sirens to create stark and percussive tracks, largely bereft of melody or modulation.

Even if they have strayed far from the sonic roots of the early industrial, they still hew close to the ideas that spawned the genre. Music is something that should be taken very seriously. Music should inspire the listener to think. Music should not comfort or placate. Certainly, a track such as "Mutator" reinforces this conception perfectly. It has a beat, but it's maddeningly off beat, a 4/4 with all the beats accentuated in just such a way as to make the song entirely unsettling. The fact that this is happening at the same time that dentists' drills and droning airplanes rise and fade across the horizon only adds to the discomforting effect. (This is also, it should be noted, probably their best chance for a pop single off the album.)

The album starts at the peak, and proceeds to roll downhill over the course of the next three discs. The comparatively familiar beats and pulses give way to slow rises and fades, as the same sounds which opened the album with distress slowly recede, leaving sparse deserts of silence in their wake. By the third disc, the velvet silence has almost entirely enveloped the angry bursts of industrial noise. Tracks like "Sewageworld" and "Corridor" are merely echoes of previous songs -- short bursts of white noise echoing through empty hallways. Ironically, the silence is far more stultifying and claustrophobic than the grinding noise that began the project. By the end of the third album, the great white sound from the beginning of the first disc has devolved into the tiniest of notes: small crystalline tones bouncing off each other in the darkness.

The fourth disc, comprised of a single 61-minute long track called "Radiation", is basically a single oscillating musical note. There's nothing harsh or grating or ominous, just raw tones ebbing and flowing through space for an hour.

Kesto is Finnish for "strength" and "duration", and that's a perfect summation of what this album is all about. There is something undeniably powerful in the kind of forceful vision that would create such a raw, overpowering conceptual tour de force. However, as with much industrial, it's easier to respect the ideas behind the music than to love the music itself.

Over the course of 234.48:4 minutes (they use the total time as the album's subtitle), Pan Sonic tell a very simple story in a very elaborate manner. Beginning with the complex and combative aggro of the first disc, the very notion of sound is dismantled and decompressed until it loses all cohesion, and melts away to just a few echoes in the darkness. And of course, after the sound dissipates entirely it is reborn as something wholly dissimilar to what has passed before: an infinitely wise cosmic presence rising to life from the ashes of the dissipated and decayed civilization. At the end of time, all that's left is the echoes of radiation as the universe wends its way to a slow heat-death.

It's a story that could only have been told through a massive expenditure of time and effort. In the same way that War and Peace could not have been told in 150 pages, Kesto could not have been conceived as anything other than a wholly massive piece of monolithic sound. I suppose in this respect that Pan Sonic have surpassed their progenitors. For all the philosophical grandeur of Einsturzende Neubauten's Silence is Sexy, or the supreme dissonance of Throbbing Gristle's massive archival box-sets, or even Trent Reznor's increasingly baroque adventures in hi-fi, none of the industrial godfathers have could possibly ever match Kesto in terms of sheer audacity. Kesto might well be remembered, if it is remembered at all, as the album that killed industrial music.

Of course, artistic movements don't die so easily. Industrial music is still going to be around for decades to come. But there's a part of me that wonders if Kesto can -- or should -- ever be surpassed. The whole point of industrial music, it seems to me, has always been to push sound to the farthest reaches of legibility, beyond melody and harmony and rhythm and into the worlds of disturbing dissonance and intellectual displacement. If there was a goal, it was to push the concept of music as far as it could go without actually destroying it.

Well, Pan Sonic have taken sound and broken it. There's no more sound left for you to use. Put up the chairs when you leave -- you don't have to go home but you can't stay here.

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