Grouper – Ruins (Kranky, 2014)


Ruins is the latest release of Grouper’s Liz Harris, another feather in a rather predictable Indie Folk/Drone cap that she’s been cultivating for around 9 years now. I’ll be honest that I’m often excited but a little hesitant approaching new Grouper work because of its tendency to be, well, a little on the unsurprising side, and whilst Ruins may not really be a deviation towards innovation, it’s certainly a beautiful and emotional record that knows its place within the niche well. Recorded in 2011 in Portugal during an artists’ residency there and whilst mourning the recent loss of a relationship, Ruins unwinds lamenting sequences of sad piano and ethereal vocal lines.

Opener “Made of Metal” is little more than a mild introduction, a dark and delicate segue from silence into the warm Southern nights of Portugal, proceeding on little more than the barely-there recordings of the local wildlife and a light drone current to transport us through time and space. Things become real with “Clearing” as the piano is introduced for the first time, and while certainly not as experimental it’s definitely got an AIA sort of vibe to its methodical, whispery vocals and circular piano. It’s our first taste of loneliness and it’s rather solemn and introspective, the vocals paper thin and just hiding tantalisingly out of view, thoughts barely breaching the surface of the mind. Pre-release single “Call Across Rooms” follows it up with something of a love song, albeit tired and lost in earnest and plaintive piano strokes that mask the lyrics in their light attack; “-maybe we’ll figure it out” Liz barely whispers in one moment of clarity, hoping that things can be undone.

“Labyrinth” and “Holofernes” break up this already rather short album up with beauteous piano solo interludes, with “Labyrinth” lost in some unenthusiastic and sad corner of our mind, slowly losing its coherence and losing sight of itself as the strokes become more sporadic and decayed, its energy to feel becoming increasingly sapped. “Holofernes” meanwhile has a touch of the biblical vengeance of its namesake, dreaming of inflicting her own emotional torture on her lost half for a brief moment, the faded piano caked in cassette fuzz and unfurling its dystopic notions. It’s immediately juxtaposed by the apologetic and lonely “Holding”, perhaps the best piece of the album for me.

“It’s in the morning when the sadness comes”,

Liz admits to us, those warm and quiet moments where she realises there’s nobody at her side and we slowly come to and remember why. This gauzy introspection spins out for a delicious 8 minutes, whispering from her lonely apartment from behind the piano about all those little desires and wishes and moments passed, lulling us and herself slowly to sleep before exhaustion comes and the sad thundery rains outside serenade us finally into a restful, albeit lonely, sleep, which is brought to us neatly in the evocative 11 minute closer of “Made Of Air”. Created in 2004 and summoned from the archives (from even before her debut), you have to wonder what other gems Liz has been sitting on from the last decade or more that’s yet to see the light of day. We’re finally allowed some peace here as distal and smeared piano and guitar drones ebb and flow through the mix, crafting a delicate and fuzzy dreamworld that we’ve escaped into to avoid facing reality. It’s a gorgeously peaceful, wandering and minutely exquisite piece that manages to seem both infinitesimal and all encompassing as at the same time being tiny and hovering on the cusp of barely existing at all.

It’s hard for me to get really excited about this one but at the same time it’s pretty hard to deny just how gorgeous it actually is. Liz has established her meta now, she knows exactly where she’s at and how to get the most out of her music; sure, whatever, it’s a sound that we’ve pretty much all heard before but, the way that it’s executed and the honesty and intimacy of the production and vocals makes this just a little bit special. Fans of hers are almost certainly going to enjoy the continuity and the consistency displayed here but I think this is a rather touching and affecting release that can be enjoyed by those who listen to Singer/Songwriters or Ambient with even only passing interest.

Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp, 2014)


For an artist that has been scarcely seen or heard from in the music world for the past 7 years, and not produced an album for 13 years under his main Aphex Twin alias, Richard James has set the Internet on fire with the surprising revelation of his hiatus breaking newest release Syro. Built out of a Frankenstein-ian collection of largely older material and more modern pieces of as-yet-unknown age, it’s an album that has certainly cleaved opinions of fans that have been clamouring for years for new material.

The opening duet of “minipops 67” and “XMAS_EVET10” have drawn criticism for both being tracks that have been circulating the Internet for years now, ever since their first live performances in 2007 and 2010 respectively; “where’s the new content?”, I hear the ingrates cry. Their modernity as compared to some of the other pieces in the album is clear though, with “minipops” focusing down on unusually Pop-centric sensibilities in its warped vocal lines and tinkling, Hip-Hop reminiscent piano sequences supplementing the playful, retro synth tickles that gently waft the track forwards. “XMAS_EVET10” meanwhile is a deliciously dark and twisting roadmap of Richard’s recent life and one of the finest displays of his emotional baggage that is referenced across the record, opening to squelching 303s and sad, detuned piano lines , desperately trying to climb out of its repressed hole in the pseudo-dance sequences of self-appeasing basslines at the 4 minute mark, before plateauing and outriding the recent instability in his life to settle into its habitual rhythms.

The emotional chaos of Richard’s life across this 13 year gulf can be found nearly everywhere on the album actually; “180db_” tries to suppress the memory of recent hardships as it blots the early album with its incongruous and aggressive pulses of distorted noise, staggering and buffeting in the middle of the dancefloor, the skittering lights the bobbing heads and hands and strobing light show burying reality for a brief moment. Later in the album the madly titled “s950tx16wasr10”, supposedly one of the tracks titled by his kids, alludes to the the difficulties and fear of raising children, a cathartic pinnacle of insane bpm Jungle beats brushing the edge of the unknown as it rises out of tempered, restrained instrumentation into a battlefield of experimental electronica. Precursor “PAPAT4″is another piece that raises the game as the album progresses, bringing out rapidfire Acid synth lines and insane breakbeats across the stuttering drum machine, whipping up flurries of anxiously excitable sound with incredible textural detail and nuance but of nauseating speed.

But it’s in a couple of really surprising tracks where I think the rawest content is; the title track “syro u47et8+e” opens to Richard’s wife muttering something in Russian, before slipstreaming into a sort of honeymooning, excitable barrage of funky electro grooves and 70s nostalgia, burdened with LFO bleeps and clipped croonings, troughing with guttural basslines before collapsing near the end in more minimalist, tired, but ultimately satisfied synth grooves that lean on the shimmering warbles of the bright backing drone. Similarly, “CIRCLONT6A” dances away its woes in Acid-cum-Chiptune beats that rise up out of a mire of squelchy 303s, climbing out of a drunken slide of, again, contesting LFO beeps and smeared synth walls with a big fat grin on its face.

But it’s truly the closer that puts the icing on the cake for me, probably because it’s the most surprising part of the entire record; the 5 minute Ambient tangent that unwinds on delicately repeating piano strokes and chirping birdsong of “aisatsana”, or Anastasia spelled backwards (the name of his second wife). It just feels like an oasis of calm and contentedness in a sea of increasingly rising worry and fear and unsureness, a bastion of love and reliability that puts an end to what was an escalating spiral of emotional disarray. It really is disarmingly beautiful, even if you don’t think it’s an appropriate closer.

I’ll be honest, even on the first listen I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this release, and that feeling has only grown with each passing listen. Sure, there’s a bunch of late-album Acid tunes that I don’t think are particularly strong and there’s still something to be desired in the production value department, but this works just incredibly well as a cohesive unit, spanning emotional multitudes (and literal time) with a surprising amount of variety, and ultimately finding a resolution in its end; this is an album that brings a little bit of late 90s Electronic charm into 2014 for the fans that have waited patiently for so long, and what a fantastic return to the music world it is.

Hanan – Sonder (Inspirus, 2014)


“Sonder” is one of those funny words that seems to have grown up on the internet in the past few years, seemingly to fill an apparent hole in the English language; defined as being “the realisation that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own” it’s often found overlain on evocative B&W gifs and accompanying pseudo-philosophical meanderings on Tumblr. Despite being a rather intriguing concept in reality, its flagrant overuse as a word in recent times has made me a little tired of seeing it. I had not seen, however, someone attempt to use the word and create an album centered deliberately over this thought; that was up until Hanan came along. Rather bitesized at just a shade over 33 minutes long, Hanan attempt to capture this fleeting realisation in their Post-Rock sensibilities.

I apologise for any cynicism in advance but over the course of several listens this album has increasingly revealed itself to be shallow and rather uninspiring across its duration, ironically suggesting ideas of self-awareness and the desire to move away from the norm but still languishing in fairly predictable Post-Rock frameworks, a genre that never seems to want to progress (in my eyes). There’s a number of instances of this not being a wholly Post-Rock record actually, largely through the latter part of the album; “Widdershins” takes its name seriously and provides an interestingly electronic deviation with its skittering mechanical sounds and jumbled glitch scattered throughout, grating and stuttering against the mainstream. It’s something of an outlier sonically, although closer “Scoop” is another similar bastion of Ambient sound in the album as it slowly sends downtempo pulses of shimmering instrumentation out of the darkness, sounding tired but not resigned. “Wolfsbane” is perhaps the last antithetical track as it cruises in on beds of softly shifting drones and threateningly discordant piano lines, albeit tempered and unusually delicate in their presentation. All of these pieces unwind at a nice, consistent and delicate rate, and are pleasant musings.

The other tracks are, what I would call, relatively unsurprising when it comes to all things Post-Rock, perhaps with the exception of the beautiful intimacy of the opener “Buttons”, which seems content enough in its little details as it spins minimal piano tinklings against oscillating synth pads and sparse, lightly processed guitar chords. “Parsimony”, the second track of the album, really does define the stereotypical sound though as it rolls out its repetitive, staccato guitar leads and lightweight, cymbal-splashy percussion. Admittedly it does lead out on some rather nice, delicate movements towards the end as playful synths complement more grinding guitar drones, resistive of the previous aggression. But pieces like “Philistines” are every bit as dull and repetitive as the monotonous arguments they tout, with aggressive but distant guitar once again carrying the splashy percussion in endless, barely migrating loops, and “Pay Attention” taking advantage of the overused crescendos that Post-Rock is so desirous to include at every opportunity, destroying its initially quiet and neat, downtempo guitar in favour of a heavily processed, grinding climax in its closing minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this is a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m sure there’ll be more than a fair share of individuals who really appreciate this record and its instrumentation, but every time I give Post-Rock a chance it seems to throw it back in my face and just not supply anything that taxes the genres parameters and remains content to regurgitate the same tropes that really have been done to death at this point. Hanan at least seem to recognise this in some capacity as they try to evade the predictable in the final few tracks and appear to hover on the edge of indecision in a number of others but it still ends up being disappointingly sluggish and dry. It stays true enough to its concept at the least, for which it can be commended, but I found myself pretty disenchanted with this overall.