Amnesia Scanner is the kind of musical act that inspires the invention of new genres. The Berlin-based duo's music has been categorized as everything from "doombahton" to "nu-metal-gabba" in an attempt to describe their entirely unique, and at times alien, sound. Writers relish nothing more than the challenge of describing the indescribable, Amnesia Scanner's innovative approach to club music has made them a critical darling and their shying away from concrete explanation has let imaginations run wild.
Their debut album, Another Life, is unabashedly abrasive, feeding EDM-sounds through a digital woodchipper and cobbled back together with a power drill into a massive Frankenstein-ed juggernaut of a club track. The album is a supercharged tour-de-force from the riot-inducing shouts of Pan Daijing on "AS Chaos" to the grating metal siren call piercing through wave upon wave of expansive bass in "AS Spectacult." Even in its quieter moments, Another Life vibrates with ecstatic electricity like coffee brewed with Redbull, tumbling between paranoia and ecstasy. Amnesia Scanner's soundscapes are rich, textural, and unfathomably complex in shear depth of layers.
The only thing more complex may be the equally cryptic visual world that Amnesia Scanner has crafted alongside music with the help of creative agency PWR Studio. Nightmarish creatures, dis-orienting music videos, and a website overloaded with spam and illegible type only furthers the mystery surrounding the duo. A lack of interviews and statements about their work up until this point, has opened the door for countless theories as to what Amnesia Scanner means. Is it a digital cult? Is it a statement on information saturation in the internet age? Are they satirizing EDM?
Sitting down to talk with Ville Haimala and Martti Kalliala of Amnesia Scanner, I began to realize that I too had fallen into the same trap, projecting my own fan theories onto the project. Conflating my own interpretations and ideas about visibility and digital existence with the series of images and sounds Amnesia Scanner has presented us with over the years. Ville and Martti have been content to let Amnesia Scanner speak for itself, an open-ended experience that is made to leave a lasting impression. Under its umbrella, all interpretations are valid but at the end of the day its important to remember what dance music makes us do; it makes us move.
Amnesia Scanner hasn't given many interviews up until this point, why is that?
Ville Haimala: We've been wanting the music and the world we've been creating around it to do the talking. Now with the album, we felt that we had enough to talk about in terms of previous releases and projects. It didn't feel necessary to clog the space with identical interviews, so we thought we would rather do a couple nice ones
What was the process of making the album like?
V: Its sort of been like all roads have been leading towards the album in the way that project started as something sparser and more spatial, not song focused but more of a sonic and visual world. It started as this website but then it started to invade into a live show-like territory. The album isn't this end conclusion but more in terms of where we are now. The world that we've been building is now starting to take shape in songs with pop structures and hooks.
Martti Kalliala: The album felt like a natural form of release. It happened very organically. Like most album processes there is a greater amount of music that is then distilled into whole item. Once we had started making selections it was at that point we were like "its here." Its not like a concept album driven by one idea per se.
That's interesting because your work appears to be very conceptually driven, I was curious if there was a narrative or a theme that runs through the album?
M: Its more so the other way around. For example, track names, its always been something that we thought about afterwards. The process isn't necessarily conceptually driven, of course there are ideas that play with format but its more so aesthetically driven. It something that forms rather intuitively but if there are perceived themes with visuals or the track names that something that can be attached to the music retroactively.
V: The album is very emotional. Its loaded, not with concepts but more schizophrenically like our time; intense and overloaded with information. Its sad and scared and euphoric and terrified at the same time depending on the particular moment. It isn't an overarching theme but that would be the drive for certain tracks, emotion.
Photo by Satoshi Fujiwara
What did you draw inspiration from for the album?
M: I think inevitably it was going to be some exaggerated or compressed or saturated form of contemporary existence. There may be musical influences, but it isn't intended to be referential. Sure, there's like a bit that is nu-metal or another that pulls from hardstyle.
V: I think its more about those similar genres like hardstyle or nu-metal or EDM. They are more supercharged, and effect driven in the same sense that our music, especially this album, is about feeling hard and impacts hard. Its maximalist in this emotional way.
You balance that though with more ambient soundscapes on the album too. Tracks like "AS Daemon" end up as these pensive bookends.
M: Yeah, the flow of the record necessitated that sort of balance. I also feel like those tracks are also just as saturated. They may not have the same energy but if you look at those tracks they still are just as saturated.
For those who may not be as familiar, what is the world of Amnesia Scanner like?
V: I think a good way to look at it is that because Amnesia Scanner is not necessarily a project that is personality driven, it isn't about me or Martti, we want the listener or viewer to have a unique POV. Its trying to create an immersive world that isn't too explanatory. But it also isn't meant to be a riddle that we want people to solve. We want people to be able to enter, stay, and have their own interpretations.
M: We collaborated with this studio called PWR Studio for our visuals since the beginning. Our work with them has been very intuitive, we share a sensibility of what resonates and makes the most sense even if it doesn't translate literally. A lot of people try to interpret Amnesia Scanner as a digital cult or riddle but its more what you see is what you get. In that sense, it's very direct and transparent even if it comes off like the opposite.
Photo by Satoshi Fujiwara
What is the rationale behind removing your individual identities from the project?
M: It didn't feel relevant to the project or what we viewed as interesting. As the landscape of electronic music and music at large has changed, there are going to be identities that are interesting to talk about and with us is there then going to be much more room to talk about? With Amnesia Scanner we were never wanted to be the focus, the sound is what should be at the center. We definitely didn't want to be Anonymous, with a masked DJ setup which almost becomes then like a prison, but we never wanted to at the forefront of it.
V: Its more interesting for us since we don't know where its going as well. For example, with the live shows we try to make so we are at the same level as the audience, we try to make the room really intense. Of course, we are on stage controlling the room, but the room is the performer and we experience it in the same way as the audience. It's a much more democratic space in that sense. The music is what works to build the work and we can just exist there with the listener. That's why the project comes off as illogical and strange, we try to combine things that may not be the most natural combinations to see what happens which is also how the music is made. A very expressionistic way of composition where we'll just try things and combine what works into what we hope sounds like Amnesia Scanner. It should be something new or exciting or annoying, it's very cartoonish somehow.
Photo by Satoshi Fujiwara
I think this gets at a larger theme of visibility that runs through the Amnesia Scanner project. I saw the live show in New York last summer at the Umbrella Factory, it was in this small room in a warehouse and there were these two strobes going off constantly so much so that everyone had to look at the floor for the duration of the performance…
M: Oh, I wish you hadn't see that show. That one will go down in history as one of our worst shows. It was a small space and a small crowd, and we didn't have the necessary infrastructure to put on a proper performance so it left a bad taste in our mouth.
I wouldn't sell yourselves short though, I walked away from that show, my corneas slightly burnt, thinking "wow, that was the most punk thing I've ever experienced!" It was like "Look at your own risk!"
M: I'm happy to hear that then. Since the beginning we've always been interested with the live shows as being not representative, image driven, just use technology in the most powerful visceral way. We weren't interested in just playing instruments, we were always interested in the maximum effect that we could create.
V: I guess there's usually a little bit more dynamic but in that situation that was all we had so we just used it for the max effect. This effectivity is what gets really interesting, if you fill a room with smoke and heavy strobes it starts to get trippy. It somehow transforms the whole experience into something different than looking at a band playing on a stage. It starts to do something to you on a deeper level.
M: I think some of the best shows we've played, we managed to take over the whole space. It isn't just an image you observe on stage from afar, the light and smoke envelops you completely and its that level of abstraction that becomes really appealing. We try to take that further and further as the project goes forward.
V: It also ironically then becomes and image because if you go to Instagram and search "Amnesia Scanner" all the photos from an Amnesia Scanner show look exactly the same.
It's almost a distillation of rave environments.
M: Yeah, personally I think that a lot of electronic live shows are so boring in general. I just didn't want ours to be boring. It's typically just people with a laptop, there's nothing happening on stage visually or conceptually, so we try to do what we can to make it more intense more visceral.
That's what stuck me about your use of strobes, going to an electronic show you have an impetus to look at the DJ but being blasted with light forces you to fight that urge. Along the same line of visibility and obfuscation, your merch has reflective material on it that obscures the wearer if they take a picture of themselves because it generates this large glare.
V: I think it comes down to effect. With this reflective material it produces an effect, it does more than just a shirt. It becomes participatory, people really love to take pictures of the shirt because it burns this mark into a photo.
In both instances, visibility, or lack thereof, seems to be grounded in digital ways of seeing.
M: It is interesting that this obfuscation that you talk about only really arise in the digital ways of documentation. Like with the live show every live show looks similar because what you can document is the same, but I wouldn't necessarily want to push that idea any further.
Photo by Satoshi Fujiwara
What do you want people to take away from listening to this album?
M: I'm not sure, whatever they can really make of it. I mean it's a really lame answer but I'm not sure what I would want them to get from it.
V: Well this might also be a really lame answer, but the project should be this very personal experience. Its abrasive and loud but, like with the strobes you start seeing these weird shapes when you look at them long enough, the record is there to…the word 'trigger' is maybe not the right word but its there to poke you, to have a reaction. I know that it's a record that people also don't really like. Its very in your face, I've noticed that the reactions are often strong, people love it or hate it. I think that's a nice thing to have, it should somehow show the contemporary feeling and that's how people should react to it. Either love it or hate it.
M: One of the things that holds this, the fact that we actually decided to release an album, was to appeal to people that weren't already tuned in with our aesthetics or our work. We were hoping that this packaging, these textures that are abrasive, put that into a more familiar package that might reach an audience that otherwise not know us.
What can people expect from future live shows supporting the album?
V: At the center of the album there is this sort of voice that we call "Oracle" which is what we think of as the voice of Amnesia Scanner. I think that voice will be the centerpiece of the live show. It's not a virtual performer but it is the star of the live show and the album.
What is Oracle exactly?
M: It both a specific kind of technology, it's a production stack, but there's also a narrative trend that comes out of the voice. Like we said, its never really been about us, more and more we've been working with vocalists and got the desire to give Amnesia Scanner more of a voice somehow that isn't coming from the outside, growing more organically from the music. That's where the need for Oracle came from, but its more embedded in the music than a vocal. A typical vocal structure in a song is usually a vocal on top of an instrumental but with Oracle he is more directly baked into the production of the music, a voice that acts like a synth, more like another instrument.
Like an avatar for Amnesia Scanner?
M: In a sense, but its more formless. We are working though on visuals and ways that can give it more of a form.
V: The reason why its created is that we don't want to be like beatmakers with featuring artists on the track only. Its more like a band that has a vocalist, we want Oracle to be that for Amnesia Scanner.
Photo by Satoshi Fujiwara
I want to touch briefly on the visual world of Amnesia Scanner. Preceding the album, your aesthetic was more gothic, likened to Hieronymus Bosch with body horror and medieval, now the cover art is dusty but also surreally disorienting.
V: Up until the album we had exclusively been working with PWR Studio to create the art, but for the album we worked with a Japanese photographer, Satoshi Fujiwara, to create the cover. It was actually Martti that first saw his work in an exhibition and he has this HDR, overly saturated, compressed flat style of shooting and it felt like a visual representation how we feel our music is as well. This kind of hyper detail that is compressed in a way that obscures the original subject matter. That's why we ended up working with a photograph and this specific artist. Again, I don't think there is a linear build up visually over these different releases because these people that we work with, PWR Studio has been with us since day one, they know our work very intimately so they just riff of what the music is. They will then bring in proposals for the visuals so in that sense it has just been intuitively growing. For example, when you go to our website, its just a stack of websites. With every new release there is a new website that doesn't really have a relation to the previous one, it tells this obscure story but is really just tied into the moment it made and how the music is. We like that it leaves more questions than it gets answers.
M: The video is more so the facet of the project that is conceptually driven. We never really discuss with PWR Studio what should be on the cover its more intuitive. Maybe at the beginning we had more of a seed or idea what kind of world we wanted to be into, but it really evolved organically from there. Each subsequent iteration isn't exactly the antithesis of the previous version maybe like 90 degree turns but it exists in the same space.
The two videos you released ahead of this album "AS A.W.O.L." and "AS Too Wrong" at first glance seem very different. One is photorealistic while the other an extended meditation on a simple digital manipulation, but if you dive deeper into either of them there unfolds a lot more complexity than is initially visible. I was wondering if you could expand on that?
M: The "A.W.O.L." video is very multi-layered in a sense that the people in the video have these suits that were made by PWR Studio that has a lot of imagery that is used in the album art and our Instagram and promotional material. It is also a strange combination of references of things they have been into and we have been into like Hype Williams-golden era wide angle lens music video in a very lo-fi way. It's a few elements that don't really belong together that meet in the middle. The "Too Wrong" video is almost like this cursed image, a strange ghost like moment that happened, and it ends up being a very simple video.
At a point, "AS Too Wrong" almost reads like an extended gif and now that I think about it the cover art for "AS A.W.O.L." is this destroyed meme character. Both are artifacts of digital culture made strange.
V: I think the "A.W.O.L." cover art definitely riffs off of that but also more traditional hardcore pictures. But I think Amnesia Scanner has always been very digital, but I think that's we're doing with the album art and the "A.W.O.L." video, we don't want it to be a solely internet driven project. They way I hope that people experience Amnesia Scanner is at the live show, in this environment, a very real-life environment that we create; there is the music and the visual triggers be it smoke or light or projection or what not. I think that's the way it should be consumed.
Photography by Satoshi Fujiwara