Mise en Abyme is the first new Raison d’être album in four years, and according to Peter Andersson, it represents “an inner journey down to the most hidden and dark parts of the Self” inspired by the theme of katabasis, or journey through the underworld (à la Dante’s Divine Comedy). Or, put another way, it’s “a psychological and therapeutic trip to the underworld, investigating the subconscious.”
“Therapeutic” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind during Mise en Abyme’s opening half. On the aptly titled “Abyssos” and “Infernos,” Andersson takes the listener on a journey through a blasted soundscape given shape by subterranean drones, clattering metal percussion, and waves of desolate synthesizer. Haunted factories on the edge of a decaying city, ivy-covered temples once home to long-forgotten ceremonies, abandoned ruins jutting out from a barren, windswept plain — these are the settings conjured up by Andersson’s sounds.
It’s not for everyone (though fans of Deaf Center and Deathprod will find much to appreciate here). But as someone who’s fascinated by how ambient music can create such cinematic mental images and as someone who’s fascinated with desolate wilderness regions, forlorn places, and alien landscapes (like those in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker), these pieces evoke as much curiosity as anxiety or existential dread, if not moreso.
If the album’s first half represents a descent into the underworld, then the second half is the eventual return to light. Or, as Andersson puts it, “even in the darkest and chaotic places in the depths, there are small shades of light, hope and understanding.” On “Katharos” and “Agraphos,” sacred music elements (e.g., chants, choirs, gongs, bells) emerge but their appearance doesn’t exactly banish the surrounding darkness; the monk chants ringing out from the gloom may be soothing and contemplative but there’s something eerie and forlorn about them as well. Instead, these elements temper, soften, and illuminate the darkness.
The tension between light and dark, peaceful and chaotic, soothing and unsettling makes Mise en Abyme’s second half more interesting and affecting. And though Andersson may intend no religious subtext, I confess that it’s difficult for me to not think religiously during the second half. (Those monk chants and whatnot certainly don’t help.) Indeed, with their sublime darkness, “Katharos” and “Agraphos” quite adroitly capture the sense of awe and unease that a true contact with the Divine would almost certainly create. After all, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “holy places are dark places.”
But even sans any religious or spiritual subtext, Mise en Abyme remains a fascinating, disturbing, enthralling, unsettling listen, and one of the most accomplished Raison d’être releases to date.