Grouper


(Copyright © 2017 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Way Their Crept (2005), 7.5/10
Wide (2006), 6.5/10
Cover The Windows And Walls (2007), 7/10
Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (2008), 6/10
Alien Observer (2011), 7/10 (mini)
Dream Loss (2011), 7.5/10 (mini)
Violet Replacement (2012), 6/10
The Man Who Died In His Boat (2013), 5/10
Ruins (2014), 5/10
Grid of Points (2018), 6/10 (mini)
Nivhek: After its own Death (2019), 7/10
Shade (2021), 6.5/10
Raum: Event of Your Leaving (2013), 6/10
Raum: Daughter (2022), 6/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Grouper, the project of Liz Harris, drew abstract fragile spaced-out threnodies on a canvas of droning slow-motion foggy ambience woven by trembling keyboards and guitars Way Their Crept (Free Porcupine Society, 2005). There is little more than slow echoes in Way Their Crept, the ultimate psychedelic hymn. The invocation of a cosmic shaman is mixed with the buzzing sounds of the desert in Hold A Desert Feel Its Hand, yielding a whirlwind of murky drones and reverbs. Tremolo and distortion pick up strength in Zombie Wind, that sounds like a Tibetan monk's remix of a Jimi Hendrix solo. This piece segues into the lugubrious moaning of Sang Their Way, something like a musique concrete version of a pack of wolves howling at the moon. The Tibetan influence permeates Zombie Skin too, but here the vibrations are gentler. By comparison, the sweet wordless lullabies of Black Out and Where It Goes are regular songs. All of Grouper's creatures are short psychological vignettes except for the nine-minute Close Cloak, which is better envisioned as a fantasia of sorts, mutating from the ecstatic minimalist repetition of the beginning into a thick nebula of pulsing black holes and wailing ghosts only to end into a somber requiem-like murmur. This is all very abstract and introverted, musical in a non-musical manner, a blurred dreamlike collage of sounds, the soundtrack to a disorienting Joyce-ian stream of consciousness but without any of the tragic overtones; a post-mystical experience.

Grouper's avantgarde slo-core was at the same time more varied and more corporeal on Wide (Free Porcupine Society, 2006). The wordless singing actually sounds like it is trying to articulate words in Little Boat - Bone Dance (Audrey), which has more of a cinematic than abstract quality. A heavy vibration (almost a hard-rocking bass riff) propels Imposter In The Sky into the space of Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive, although treated with the usual strategy of blurred repetitive minimalist. The pianola elegy Giving It To You is actually a complex puzzle that evokes old street songs from Paris. On the other hand, Agate Beach is almost dissonant by her past (melodious) standards: jarring drones that seem to float against each other rather than in harmony. The stringed instrument sounds like a zither in They Moved Everything and it definitely accompanies the ebbing and flowing of the vocals rather than simply weaving an atmospheric bed of drones. The seven-minute Wide mixes the sound of water and a loud pulsing guitar riff with the vocals. In fact, Shadow Rise Drowned is the only piece that returns to the lulling, elegiac and lyrical mood of the first albm. As a transitional album, it contains plenty of ideas, but hardly a song that can stand up to the quality of the first album.

The vocals were even more prominent on Cover The Windows And Walls (Root Strata, 2007) from the slow hare-krishna hymn Cover The Windows And The Walls to the whispered fairy tales of Heart Current and It Feels Alright, both of which seem to tell a story even though it is impossible to make out if any words are actually used. The latter is particularly touching. The vocals, however, remain as cryptic and inaudible as before in the slower, martial, gloomier and murkier Opened Space and in the subdued, howling and wailing of Down To The Ocean. There are still moments of unpredictable creativity like when the wavering, rude riff of You Never Came, coupled with a whisper that is only a hiss, evokes a slow-motion version of Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man. The album closes with the sweetest vortex, Follow In Our Dreams, that simply repeats a celestial melody around a simple guitar pattern, the ecstasy of humility.

Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (Type, 2008) adopted a more traditional song format while maintaining the otherworldly dimension of her reverb-drenched, introverted, whispered dream-pop. The winners, unsurprisingly, are the wordless elegies that hark back to her first album, such as the six-minute Stuck, against a much simplified backdrop of strummed guitar instead of alien drones, the mournful feathery Tidal Wave and Wind And Snow, a languid impressionistic soundpainting. Even the brief distorted When We Fall, that sounds like the beginning of a Velvet Underground litany, is worth more than the various imitations of a traditional folk-singer, which she obviously is not (best in that vein is the crystal madrigal Invisible).

Harris promptly returned to her narcotic atmospheres on the double album A | A - Dream Loss / Alien Observer (Kranky, 2011), that collects two EPs: Dream Loss and Alien Observer. The former begins with Dragging The Streets, a gentle electroacoustic chamber lied for ambient raga fluctuations and trancey litany. The concept is framed by the extreme shoegazing of I Saw A Ray, for gritty droning noise and ethereal chanting, and the eight-minute slocore of Soul Eraser, a lethargic multitracked lullaby lulled by a turbulent sea of chords (like a funereal remix of Mazzy Star). This is a strategy that can go both ways: derail into confused mumbling (Atone) and facile looped melodies (Wind Return), or soar as a mythological creature, like the ecstatic dilated mood piece A Lie and the ghostly wordless whisper within a muffled rumble of No Other.
Alien Observer boasts the fragile, delicate, otherworldly Moon Is Sharp, a slow-motion remix of Enya fronting the Cowboy Junkies in a cover of Blue Moon, one of her most powerful interpretations (and impersonations) yet. The nine-minute Vapor Trails flutters away along a similar orbit, barely revealing the dark (dissonant) side of its instrumental accompaniment. Slow sedate repetition is the key to the compositions of this EP. She Loves Me That Way indulges in eight minutes of pulsing cosmic riffs and whirling sleepy vocals.

Violet Replacement (Yellow Electric, 2012) was her most ambitious work yet: two lengthy improvised and mostly instrumental collages of field recordings and electronics. The trivial 37-minute Rolling Gate consists of dirty drones that don't change much until about 28 minutes into the piece, when they begin to fluctuate back and forth like waves, and then eventually pick up volume. Ten minutes into the celestial drone of Sleep, the timbre shifts to a darker tonality. It takes 25 more minutes for the drone to become significantly thicker and scarier. Unfortunately, once reached the peak it simply begins to decay. Again, 51 minutes for such a childish idea is a bit too much.

The Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky, 2013) consists of leftovers recorded in 2008. The songs are often too ethereal (Cloud in Places and The Man Who Died in His Boat) and quasi somnambulant Being Her Shadow. There are only a couple of moments when Grouper abandons her passive state, and it is to be even more passive, but at least in a more intriguing manner: the psychedelic diffraction and elongation of Difference over a bubbling pulsation, and the psychological vignette Vanishing Point Static lifeless litanies such as Cover the Long Way (to name one of the prettiest) have a function that is the equivalent of wallpaper: the decoration of a space that is meant for something else. The something else is missing.

Ruins (Kranky, 2014), another collection of leftovers (this time from 2011), indulges in an odd form of spartan formalism: piano elegies and instrumentals that de-emphasize emotion and prize the most understated calvary of the human soul. A sense of desolation and loneliness emanates from the musical still-life of Call Across Rooms We are supposed to appreciate the whispered confessions of Clearing and Lighthouse (with frogs in the background, what an amazingly original idea), but they contain little more than the whisper. And instrumentals such as Labyrinth are a bit embarrassing (repetition of simple patterns that require only the most primitive of techniques). The eleven-minute droning composition Made of Air, a leftover from 2004 that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album, is basically added in lieu of a "bonus track", perhaps to redeem the mediocrity of the preceding pieces, but it belongs with Violet Replacement to the category of self-overrating ambient art. This album is a difficult listen not because there are difficult musical constructs (the opposite) nor because it is tiring (the opposite) but because there is simply very little to listen to. The artistic decline began after Dream Loss (2011), and it seems to be accelerating.

That Ruins was not simply an accident or a parenthesis was confirmed by the seven-song mini-album Grid of Points (Kranky, 2018), another collection of skeletal piano-based elegies that emanates a sense of fragility, from the celestial Parking Lot to the weightless Blouse. Her overdubbed agonizing vocals chisel the warm Thanksgiving Song and the sound of a departing train ends Breathing and the whole album in a cryptic way. She doesn't sing Birthday Song, she exhales it, and the echoes of her vocals almost make the room where she is singing a second instrument. These are sighs, not songs.

Liz Harris also released an album under the moniker Nivhek, After its own Death / Walking in a Spiral Towards the House (2019), which originated as the soundtrack for a multimedia installation by visual artist Marcel Weber. The 38-minute nine-movement suite After its own death begins with Cloudmouth, eight minutes of ghostly tension sculpted by ethereal wailing and pulsating synthesizer, followed by Night-walking, a tender lullaby repeated by xylophone and/or bells with emphasis on their celestial overtones. The pace slows down and the lullaby becomes a Funeral Song in a monastery with the reverbs playing the role of the chanting monks. The ten minutes of Thirteen are filled with delicate chiming guitar tones, weaving a fragile filigree reminiscent of cloister prayers, something between the Harold Budd of Pavilion Of Dreams and the Popol Vuh of Hosianna Mantra. Here she loses the thread of her thoughts and inserts a couple of unnecessary interludes: an oneiric duet for field recordings and her voice (Crying Jar) and 50 seconds of a loud distortion. The eight minutes of Walking in a Spiral Towards the House feel like a trivial repetition of the previous chiming prayers. The 21-minute Walking in a Spiral Towards the House is basically a remix of the same music. Its versions of Night-walking and Thirteen feel more forceful and a bit "poppier". Funeral Song feels more austere, no less powerful than the first version. The 12-minute version of Walking in a Spiral Towards the House is the most cinematic piece, at times reminiscent of a warm narration and at times more like singing a melancholy elegy. Because it pauses and rises, its languor feels more heartfelt and humane. The two Funeral Song are both impressive, the second Walking in a Spiral Towards the House is much more interesting than the first one, the first versions of Night-walking and Thirteen are way more creative than the second ones, and Cloudmouth is the peak of suspense. If these pieces had been edited down one 30-minute suite, it would have been her masterpiece. As it is, the music has ups and downs of intensity and beauty, and, unfortunately, the downs ruin the magic created by the ups.

After releasing mainly piano-based songs, she returned to guitar-based folk music on Shade (Kranky, 2021). Hardly repetitive and monotonous, the album spans several different styles. Followed The Ocean and Disordered Minds are heavily distorted lo-fi dream-pop. On the other hand, she is unusually conventional in the whispered bedroom elegy Unclean Mind and in the country-ish six-minute Kelso. Elsewhere, Pale Interior and The Way Her Hair Falls plumb the depths of loneliness in a deeply intimate and introverted manner reminiscent of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley. And this style decays twice in a spellbinding mood: in the ethereal sedated lullaby Ode To The Blue and in the anemic slocore dirge Promise. This album is more "folk" than "ambient", but the ghostly Basement Mix is hardly a song, more like the lament of a dying soul.

Raum was a collaboration with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma of Tarentel that debuted with the five ambient pieces of Event of Your Leaving (2013), notably the gentle wind of the 13-minute In Stellar Orbit, the ghostly nebula of the nine-minute In Held Company, and the ethereal dilated otherworldly chant of Blood Loss.

The ambient music of Raum's second album, Daughter (2022), is instead disturbed by glitches of all sorts. A piano, field recordings and a bit of background noise come together in Walk Together. Revolving Door is a slowly-mutating loop of eerie musique concrete. Daughter is a duet between an organ drone and sounds of nature. The twinkling electronic tapestry of Sunlight Crying is a highlight, perhaps precisely because it doesn't rely on glitches. The 20-minute Passage is a feeble sonata for subliminal drones and muffled piano notes. The technique is often facile, but the results are always affecting. A sense of moral and physical emptiness emanates from these mental landscapes.

(Copyright © 2017 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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