The Missing Ensemble – Hidden Doors; Zeropolis

by 5:4

The Missing Ensemble was a US trio comprising Daniel De Los Santos, John Sellekaers and Mathias Delplanque, who together released two albums around 13 years ago. i forget where the recommendation to listen to their music came from all those years ago, but i do remember that one of the things that instantly drew me towards it was the cover art of their first album, Hidden Doors (2006), which featured a painting by an artist i had long admired, Ray Caesar.

Caesar’s art is beautiful and unsettling, and that’s not a bad description for Hidden Doors, a four-part journey through a soundscape that’s simultaneously stable – even, at times, borderline stagnant – yet with an omnipresent sense of threat. The first part sets up two layers of sound, one of which is positioned in the middleground, and consists of quiet, slightly glitchy burbling. The second layer involves various pitches being emphatically extruded in the foreground, sometimes piercing or juddering, other times acting in a more circumspect manner, lurking nearby. The relative strength of these two layers continually varies and wavers though extremely slowly, gently altering the depth and focus of the music. In the second and third parts there’s more of a sense of diverse elements being brought together. In the relatively brief Part II, there’s a sense of metamorphosis, of these elements combining to form something new. In less than three minutes it becomes a beautiful but strange, multi-faceted texture in which pitch and noise collide and jostle, as if it were reforming and breaking apart constantly.

Part III introduces a rhythmic quality in the form of a curious ticking that causes a rapid shift between sound sources (so fast that it’s tantalisingly impossible to identify anything), sharply demarcated at the left, centre and right positions within the stereo field. This evolves very gradually indeed, gaining tiny electronic blips and small granular elements, all begging the question of whether the music is relaxed or poised, the epitome of Hidden Doors‘ generally unsettling tone. The ticking ebbs somewhat, and a new kind of tapping takes over, alongside a faint quasi-metallic scraping, leading to a doggedly lowercase yet wonderfully immersive atmosphere. One of the things i adore about Part III is the way it defies the kind of fragility that so often characterises lowercase music; it’s delicate, certainly, but it demonstrates how that’s a very different thing from being fragile. The final part moves away from a percussive emphasis, exploring a soundscape where, achingly slowly, high shimmers and low rumbles are juxtaposed with more neutral sounds. In contrast to the integrated textures in the preceding parts, it’s interesting how here everything sounds disjunct and separated, ideas being placed together but with little deliberate sense of them gelling or even particularly affecting each other, though the more one listens the more a kind of pseudo-connection between these elements starts to seem credible.

Zeropolis, released in 2007, is both more convoluted and more austere than Hidden Doors. The austerity is heard most in the final three of the album’s six tracks. ‘Attaining Pt. 1’ involves a slow-moving pitch layer with scratchy elements impinging around and against it, resulting in different timbral ‘clarities’ of pitch. At times this opens out to becoming something akin to fundamentals with weirdly complex and unstable overtones. The stark impression this piece gives of pitches being carefully re-positioned is reinforced by, at various points, increasing the stereo separation such that the music occupies the extreme left and right, with little sense of anything near the centre. There’s something fascinating about this piece, yet there’s a bleak melancholy permeating it as well. ‘Attaining Pt. 2’ is pared back further, little more than a softly growling bass drone with faint trumpet sounds over it, while in ‘Zero-sum’ pitches slip-slide over another drone as a noise layer slowly develops in the distance, eventually wiping everything out, resulting in an uncomfortably long silence. The first half of Zeropolis is much richer and among The Missing Ensemble’s best work. ‘La Suspension Éthéréenne’ explores a number of different arrangements of pitches in far-apart registers, abruptly switching between these arrangements (each of which is essentially static) as if roughly twisting a dial. This sounds similarly austere to the latter three tracks, yet halfway through the music is broken up by the introduction of strong distortion that for several minutes after destroys its clarity, resulting in some rather lovely but barely-speaking pulsings before the piece regains its composure and ends how it began.

The real highlights, though, are ‘Old York’ and ‘A Long Walk’. The latter features a slowly throbbing bass drone above which strange tappings and the sound of possibly extant musical material can be detected, heard as the merest traces of something rendered thin and one-dimensional. The slender way they’re perceived is exacerbated by the drone regularly swamping them, making them yet more infinitesimal. Later on, though, they somehow manage to become integrated with the bass to produce a dense, complex texture with a pulsating core. It’s fascinating how these most tiny sound elements somehow make their presence felt, even becoming transfigured at the very end, sounding not unlike birdsong. The opening track, ‘Old York’, is also the longest (15 minutes), unfolding in a similar way to the painstaking patience of Hidden Doors. Soft granular noise – possibly real, plausibly artificial – hinting at rain and air are mixed with deep rumbles and distant, solemn drum strikes to create a stunningly vivid environment. There’s a remarkable simultaneous sense of enormous scope – everything about this environment seems broad and expansive, practically without limits – while at the same time small sounds, seemingly happening close to us, suggest extreme intimacy. This vast sense of perspective is developed via some electronic pitch buzz that seemingly causes the different musical elements to start brewing or percolating, in the process losing a clear sense of both pitch and noise, turning into something fantastically nebulous. Slowly and hypnotically, this big, indefinable sonic object swells a couple of times before, just as slowly, starting to evaporate from the inside out, eventually just leaving vestiges of its outermost atmosphere, soft traces that are just as enigmatic as when it was fully-formed.

These albums were originally released as CDs by labels that are now long-defunct (Hidden Doors on Mondes Elliptiques, Zeropolis on Low Impedance Recordings), but happily both are available as free downloads via Bandcamp.

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