raison d’etre – The Empty Hollow Unfolds

Cold Meat Industry (CMI 78), 2000

For fans of dark ambient, Peter Andersson’s seminal raison d’etre project needs little introduction.  Since 1992, raison d’etre has released a plethora of hauntingly beautiful releases mixing traditional vocal chanting with melodic keyboard work and emotive atmospheres.  While raison d’etre has often been grouped into the dark ambient genre, I’ve always found that to be a little misleading, as Andersson’s compositions are, quite simply, often too gorgeous to be termed strictly as dark.  For me, raison d’etre has never fit any genre specifically; while filling the evocative and immersive factors often associated with dark ambient, it rarely features the brooding chaos and majestic menace that typifies much of the genre.

Regardless of labels, what really matters is the quality of the music.  Andersson’s work as raison d’etre has been criticized as being uneven, with some albums regarded as clearly superior to others.  While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this assessment – I find raison d’etre’s discography to be full of subtle experimentation on its established formula – most fans agree that the project has definitely evolved,  and one important landmark of this evolution was 2000’s The Empty Hollow Unfolds.

Prior to this album, Andersson had begun to experiment with noise elements among the project’s trademark themes of choral chanting and flowing synthetics, but with The Empty Hollow Unfolds, these elements shifted into the aural spotlight.  Andersson seemed to embrace the change, but seemed sensitive to his fans.  Over the album’s five tracks, the choral element is present, but it’s changed.  Reversed.  Downpitched.  Processed.

In the first moments of the opening track, “The Slow Ascent,” we hear an angelic male voice, followed by the clear peal of a bell: this is what we have come to expect from raison d’etre.  But then, there is a period of silence, and as we wait, ears pricked, we are made witness to Andersson’s evolution.  The voices return, but they’re changed.  Warped and distorted, but beautiful nonetheless.  It’s a different beauty now, an alien and surreal one, hinting at unfamiliar realms, following an introspective and oh-so-slightly unsettling melody that Andersson has always excelled at creating.

As the track progresses, we hear the second new element: metallic scraping and rattling, gentle at first, sometimes melding with the now-shifted bells and chimes, and slowly becoming more prevalent.  Andersson has begun to move into post-industrial territory, conjuring the spirit of Einsturzende Neubaten and other innovating pioneers, and the seeming drastic risk actually urges the music into new spaces.  We realize Andersson isn’t experimenting just because he can, but he’s discovered newfound inspiration for his particular brand of gorgeously haunting compositions.  He’s breaking things down, only to build them up again into something new.

The rest of the album is in a similar vein.  “The Hidden Hallows” moves the vocals to a higher pitch and adds slow gongs to the scrapings.  This track changes too, halfway through, with a burgeoning and beautiful wave of synthetic atmosphere that’s among the most stirring Andersson has ever produced.  “End Of A Cycle” increases the metallic chaos as well as the foreboding mood, with the chanting now deeper and more dramatic as the thrashing and crashing swirls about.  “The Wasteland” moves through strange pitches and metallic flailing, but it’s anchored by graceful and careful keyboards that never overwhelm or intrude.

The final track, the twenty-plus-minute epic “The Eternal Return And The Infinity Horizon,” showcases Andersson at the pinnacle of his conjuring powers; raison d’etre has always felt organic despite its synthetic origins, but this track moves things to another plane.  Using a rising and falling series of looped drones as its center, the track guides us along a surreal journey like the best ambient, but Andersson takes us to strange places no one ever has.  It’s equal parts dizzying and awe-inspiring, and features perhaps Andersson’s best layering, sense of structure, and sequencing work, with repeated elements that gradually fit together, only to dissolve before re-emerging in new places.  In the final moments, we catch just a whisper of pure and undistorted voice and bell once more, perhaps for the last time, as it is swallowed by the emptiness left in the wake of the amorphous titan that has just passed us by.

Whether The Empty Hollow Unfolds was a successful experiment will depend on who you talk to.  For some, it symbolized the end of raison d’etre’s treasured “choral phase” and led to a downward spiral of incoherent noise.  For others, it indicated a movement toward a new understanding of composition, flow, and technical expertise.  Taken on its own merit, however, The Empty Hollow Unfolds is a genre-straddling triumph that has a keen sense of emotional weight, sonic experimentation, and technical prowess.  Years later, I’ve still not heard anything quite like it, and I expect I never will.  I find merit in all of Andersson’s work, but for me, this one occupies a surreal space all its own.

 

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