Äänipää is a new project from Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), KTL, et al. and Mika Vainio, formerly of Pan Sonic. Their debut CD, Through a Pre-Memory, was recorded in Berlin (at Einstürzende Neubauten‘s Andere Baustelle Tonstudio) and mixed in Seattle, and features—in addition to the expected electronics and guitar—strings arranged by Eyvind Kang and performed by bassist Moriah Neils and cellist Maria Scherer Wilson. On two of the four tracks, Alan Dubin (O’Malley’s former Khanate bandmate) adapts the writing of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova as lyrics.
Unsurprisingly, the music is slow and haunted, with O’Malley’s guitar clanging like a metal door swinging in ominous winds as Vainio’s depth-charge programmed rhythms and slowly oscillating synth tones create a dark, unsettling atmosphere. Melody is largely absent; mood is decidedly not. At times, the music attains the intensity of Fushitsusha‘s more melancholy moments, but Dubin’s vocals bring the first and last tracks—”Muse” and “Watch Over Stillness/Matters Principle”—into the realm of horror. Indeed, it’s when he first appears on “Muse,” abandoning his usual witchy screech in favor of clean singing, that he’s at his most disturbing, wringing despair from every word. At a glacially slow 75 minutes, Through a Pre-Memory is not the kind of album you can just throw on to have some noise in the background. It’s the kind of record that you keep on the shelf for months, maybe even years, and then one day your life reaches some kind of awful crescendo and you suddenly remember it’s there, and are all too aware that in that moment, no other music will do the job. (Get it on Amazon.)
Stream a sampler below:
Some thoughts on the project from Stephen O’Malley and Alan Dubin (O’Malley spoke by phone from Paris, where he lives; Dubin answered questions via email):
Stephen O’Malley: It’s pronounced “Ah-knee-pah.” It’s Finnish, and it’s not as phonetic as it could be, especially with the umlauts. It looks really strange, as all Finnish words do, to me anyway. But the definition of the word is really good, so Mika suggested it as a title for the project. He explained to me that it’s a noun that basically means a recording/playback head for a tape machine, but in the vernacular of the music world it’s slang for someone who’s completely obsessive about sound. So when he suggested that, I thought, well, that’s pretty much why we’re here. And it’s a little bit neutral, too. It’s not a title so much as a definition, almost. It’s funny, with collaborative projects. I find that the more pieces of work I’m able to do with different people—luckily it continues—the naming of a project becomes almost…a lot of groups tend to start using their own names, but I still like having a title on it. It’s like making a film or writing a novel, it gives it some kind of frame, you know? In metal, you don’t have guys making collaborative records with [just] their own names.
We [Sunn O)))]met Pan Sonic when we were on this crazy tour we did in Australia in 2004…the Pan Sonic people and Sunn people got along very well in a lot of ways, and that was the first time I’d seen them play or witnessed their sound live. It was great. Following that, we stayed in touch and became friends and talked about doing something together with the bands. So Mika and I decided to meet in Berlin and improvise, see if we could write something that was compelling and work together. And we had a great first session. Then we continued with that over a couple of other sessions at the studio in Berlin. It took a while to coordinate, because Mika’s incredibly all over the place and busy, and I’m quite busy myself. But it also gave us a lot of time to reflect and plan for the sessions. The first session, with this kind of thing, for me is always sort of, “What have you got?” You know? We’ll do our sort of improvised 20-minute track on the first day, and then we’ll come back on the second day and sort of present things we want to try out—new stuff, not just the vibe. But [given] the period of time between sessions, it kind of formed more conceptually and developed its own gravity as a thing. So by the second to third session, that’s when we decided to give Alan Dubin a call and see if he wanted to contribute vocals. Also, we decided that after these tracking sessions, we wanted to mix it in a really nice analog studio, which is something Mika had never done before. He’d never worked on an analog desk to mix his music, which I found surprising.
Alan Dubin: Stephen shot me an email explaining the music he’d been working on with Mika and told me they had a conversation about how my vocals and delivery could potentially complement the songs, given the similar vibe and sparseness of some of the Äänipää sectional pieces to past Khanate efforts. I was definitely interested right away to hear the songs before making a decision, but they sent some rough versions over to me and I really dug what I heard and could immediately imagine the potential. I told them I was on board.
Due to logistics (France, Finland, NY and a mix in Seattle) and because the music was already recorded, it made sense for me to record in NY and forward my vocals to Randall Dunn for the final mix. I believe it was Mika who had the idea to use Anna Akhmatova‘s poetry (who I have of course heard of but wasn’t very familar) and I was forwarded a few pages’ worth of translations. I was also given suggested areas of the songs where Mika and Stephen imagined vocals to be. I picked out sections of poems that I thought were strongest, added a few of my own lines here and there (all based off Akhamatova’s poems of course). For instance, my clean singing delivery on “Muse” at 5:20 in—”from fire circles, liars, the wait for her to come…waiting for a vision, my fair guest you are welcome.” I tied these lines in with Akhamatova’s Dante’s Inferno reference from her text. In any case, I studied the structure of the song areas that I was to work on and came up with patterns and placement. Just like Gnaw, I manipulated and did all my own effects and created background elements, etc. It’s a great feeling to collaborate with musicians who appreciate and trust in your creativity enough to allow you to just go for it and do what you do best without specific direction, especially to songs that were a few years in the making.
O’Malley: Alan’s the guy in the band that I always stayed in touch with. I’m in touch with Jim [Plotkin] and Tim Wyskida now, too, but there were a couple of years after Khanate broke up, like a lame band does, where people were disappointed and not really excited to communicate, but got over it. But Alan I’ve been in touch with the whole time. And to tell the truth, when we were making those Khanate records, I was never there for Alan’s vocal sessions. Jim kind of took him and put him in a closet or put him in a room and tracked him. They did it; Tim and I were never involved with that. And Jim did a lot of the arrangement work for the vocals. Alan would be tracking his ideas, but Jim would do a lot of re-arranging with the vocals, and also the music, of that band. So what we ended up with on the records was stuff we would go back and rehearse as a band for the live shows. The overall structures of the arrangements were highly drafted by Jim. The internal composition was not, as much, but the fluidity of the arrangement was. But this time, Alan did it. Alan’s done a lot of great material over the last couple of years, with Gnaw and stuff. I don’t want to describe it, because it’s him, his whole personality. The other side of Alan isn’t that different—it’s a little more humorous, but he’s an intense guy. He’s passionate; that’s why he can get to such far out places in performances. This time, with Äänipää, he made a lot of proposals for arrangements and a lot of different takes and layers and stuff, and for the most part they were based on almost final arrangements of the music. He was working off the roughs, from after the Berlin sessions but before the final mixing, of course, but he was also very open, like, “You guys can change this if you want,” or “If you don’t dig it, I’ll redo something.” He’s really generous about that. But everything he sent was really great. We ended up doing a bit of arrangement, changing the placement of things, featuring certain takes more than others, but he was really generous with his time and his performance.