Depending on who’s using the phrase, “experimental music” can mean just about anything. Critics describe many well-received albums -- Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms -- as being “experimental” in some form or another. But just as frequently, the adjective bears a negative connotation – it can be used to describe incoherent noise music or even your friend’s embarrassingly self-conscious garage band stylings. But the term shouldn’t be an all-inconclusive musical canopy. To be successful, experimental music, like any type of art, must be internally coherent. Even John Cage abided by his own set of rules.
Enter Mise en Abyme’s Do You Hear The Hum. The Portland, OR-based band's third album is neither as good as the best experimental music nor as bad as the worst. Glimmering with potential, but often eclectic to a fault, Hum frustrates as much as it satisfies. Translated from French, the band’s name refers to the artistic effect of reproducing an image infinitely – as when placing something between two facing mirrors. Their murky, distorted dissonance certainly strives for the Nietzschean abyss of aesthetic conception that only great art can reach, but for the most part Hum stays firmly in the finite here and now.
The album’s high points come when Mise en Abyme keep their egos in check. Opening track “Omphalos” is an infectious, nearly wordless techno exercise that uses a heavy, discordant bassline to compel foot tapping, similar to the best German techno-pop. Glass-shattering guitar riffs, hip-hop inspired scratches, and looped clips generate a memorable rhythmic density, but the song doesn’t try to be anything more than a catchy, if slightly weird, blurb of electronica. At this, it succeeds brilliantly.
On “Tourist,” the band again uses a mangled bassline melody as the foundation for a captivating resonance. Eschewing vocals, Mise en Abyme realize a level of enigmatic complexity akin to Portishead; however, like “Omphalos,” "Tourist" is an experiment only in a specific genre. A dark anthem for those who prefer shadowy alleys to brightly lit streets, it’s also a song that you need to close your eyes to listen to, one that demands your full attention. Guitar dalliances float above drums and spooky minor notes. It’s music as haunting and suggestive as a nightmare.
If only Mise en Abyme showed restraint throughout the whole album. What the band needs is what Danish film director Lars Von Trier provided fellow director Jorgan Leith in the movie The Five Obstructions: namely, well, obstructions. Great art, whatever the medium, requires restrictions. Too often, Mise en Abyme forgo the internal coherency of “Omphalos” and “Tourist” for haphazard cross-genre mash-ups. In these instances, the band mistakes novelty for artistry. Experimentalism doesn’t give musicians license to be sloppy.
“Wool Gathering” exemplifies this. The song begins as a soft, reflective ballad and then devolves into clanging, techno disharmony. In “Hypnagogue,” a forgettable pop-techno soundtrack plays beneath half-spoken, half-sung vocals that sound like a bad Nick Cave impersonation. The band throws in a horde of random, unidentifiable sounds, but this paltry attempt at abstraction only makes the song’s failings more obvious. The song's lyrics are the self-aware, faux-symbolist poetry of a college freshman; disconnected phrases such as “collapsing with the weight of language” and “towering roosters swallow houses” are less profound than distractingly indulgent. Mise en Abyme are better when they let their music do the talking.
“Extruder,” the second-to-last track, reveals another problem with Hum: the sheer annoyance factor. Again, the lyrics are little more than a list of images (“he pulls down on your leather umbrella”), and while this work's on some albums, such as Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, in Hum's case it just grates Coupled with the song’s distorted, metallic beat, listening to "Extruder" is like flying in coach with a screaming baby next to you.
Mise en Abyme clearly have talent, but they are too often arty for their own good. Because of this, Do You Hear the Hum mingles in mediocrity when it could have resided in the sublime. There are few songs that jump out at you, but they only solidify the album as a moody, messy blob, offset by scattered highlights. The songs don’t flow organically because Mise en Abyme try to create abstract music for every musical taste. Instead of doing one genre well, they do many genres tolerably, but the whole point of experimental music is that it will only appeal to a small section of listeners. Abstract music can’t be a populist art. As a result, Hum is an experiment with a failed hypothesis. Mise en Abyme need to decide who they want to be and who they want their audience to be before they will ever become more than fledgling potential.