Grouper – Ruins (Kranky, 2014)

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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.

Keaton Henson – Romantic Works (2014)

Romantic Works

Keaton Henson is perhaps best known for his heart-breaking Indie Folk past records, works that used his vocal talent to put across ideas and emotions and tell tales of love lost. So it’s interesting then that in the surprise arrival of self-released Romantic Works, Henson has decided to forgo his usual style and craft an album capable of standing up on its own emotionally whilst leaving the lyrical content at the wayside. Refreshing as it is, and despite its relatively conventional and not-wholly-unique performance, it’s still perhaps one of the most touching records of the year, and at only 30 minutes long, manages to say a great deal in a relatively short space of time.

Forged largely from Henson’s piano and Ren Ford’s cello, it breaks open to the janglings and tunings of preparatory opener “Preface”, a warm-up session that buckles down its drone lines and chaotic instrumentation rapidly to bring the rest of the album with its closing. But it’s hard to get a lock on proceedings following its simplicity, the album itself moving from one romantic fugue or encounter to the next; “Elevator Song” is a neatly gradual introduction to the reality of the record’s sonic style, marrying a duotone piano riff to the rising stringed drones of the cello as they lift each other out of the mix in a growing wave, slow and measured but breaking free of the confines of its early simplicity. It’s sparseness and desire for expansion come around again in the locked in “Petrichor” a little later on; unquestionably my favourite track of the album it sits wistfully in its chair by the window, watching and listening to the gentle rainfall outside and spinning out delicate pulses of aged and tired, flat piano. It’s got a quiet and subdued wistfulness, mesmerised by the confining inclement weather outside, painfully aware of its loneliness.

This mildly melancholic, solitary vibe is continued like a vein through a few other pieces as well; aptly titled penultimate piece “Nearly Curtains” is a reflective and introspective little number that’s driven by the haunting and faded cries and chatter of a distant child’s voice, a desire to return to those naive, innocent and simple times expressed through sad stringed drones and thick layers of ancient, suppressive reverb. “Josella” too has a streak of melancholia running through its initial sequences, with especially pained cello bringing in a rather sharp air amidst thick and wailing waves of distal reverb, mournful and crushed. It pulls through slightly in its latter half, however, as it pushes it all away with a mild textural and temporal crescendo that serves to just take the edge of things a little bit, the piano softening things just slightly.

The remaining works could be argued to be vaguely optimistic, or at the very least hopeful. The gorgeous “Field” is perhaps the most expansive piece as it marries gorgeously delicate currents of birdsong against quiet and contemplative cello, creating a bigger but not bolder atmosphere ahead of itself as it drinks in the view and rests in peaceful and quiet reflection rather contentedly. Okay, it still retains some level of loneliness but there’s a certain distracting force at work that takes our mind off things for a brief while. The same is true of predecessor “Healah Dancing” as it carves a deliciously solitary but rather cathartic slow-dance piece out of measured cello and melancholic piano lines, the soundstage padded by distant clatterings and tinklings as we populate the cathartic daydream with more fantasy creations, crowned by a wave of splendid but rather morose crescendo as reality rushes back.

Perhaps most importantly is the piano dominated beauty “Earnestly Yours”, a precise and deliberately crafted gem that carves out the measured pen strokes and the words behind the lines through the expressive tinkling alone. Like many of the tracks, it has the same idiosyncratic burst of energy towards its closing moments, gaining a brief confidence and momentum in an emotional burst that’s just heart-breaking to listen to, a wave of suppressed love and tenderness that we’re being forced to leave behind for lack of reciprocation. And it’s tempting to think that this record focuses on a single individual, an ex-partner that is pushing Henson through the degrees of separation, but the reality is this is a smeared and averaged work that highlights the sad truth of it; loss and heart-break is wrenching no matter who or what the circumstances, it just becomes a case of same shit, different story, but there’s still happiness to be found within one’s self that we must hold on to no matter what.

Valentin Stip – Sigh (2014)

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Sigh is one of those records where little information can be gleaned about the content within from its title, project name and artwork. Given that Valentin Stip are something of a new and relatively low-key project there isn’t a vast repository of knowledge online about them, so giving this a spin was something of a leap of faith. But being on Nicholas Jaar’s newly formed label alongside Psychic means that it certainly couldn’t be terrible, and sure enough it isn’t, but it’s every bit as unclassifiable and mysterious as Psychic is.

We open to “Tableau II”; who knows what happened to Tableau I. Beautiful, vast spaces are summoned up in the electronic wiggles and warbles of this piece, crushed and deeply processed snippets of guitar floating in a vast, black synth soundscape with only sparse melodies for company. Despite coming in at almost 4 minutes its sweeping desolation seems to glide by with little impact or impression, its melodies floating by aimlessly and without imposition. It transitions beautifully into the similarly structured “Pendule”, inheriting the same inky blackness and slow, languid electronic patters and taps. A thin drone line slowly allows a certain level of increased instrumentation and leads to a neat little textural climax just beyond the midpoint, a sudden burst of energy in an otherwise tranquil system.

This steady incline towards increased activity and track length begins to take stronger form with the amazing “Aletheia”, a Grecian word for disclosure or truth. The crushing quietness and secrecy of the previous two tracks are being swept away by the slow, careful, yet striking, piano notes that flourish the rolling drone fuzz and bassy synth lines. Those same, easygoing percussive elements still appear with regularity but there’s a certain tribalism to this piece that’s unnerving in the unintelligible murmurings and mysterious, distal chanting that accompanies the music. There’s a certain sensation of catharsis and relief in this rich, almost Minimal House, piece. It cruises effortlessly into “Correlation”, which sounds like it could have come right out of Darkside’s Psychic, which is convenient given that it’s also released on Nicholas Jaar’s label. Those wibbly synth lines still bob in and out of the mix rather jovially but the whole thing is led by those slow, wet, reverbed guitar chords we saw out of Psychic. It’s one of the emptier pieces, despite the plethora of unnameable textures.

Cooing ambiance makes an appearance in the lightweight interlude that “Aveu” turns out to be, resetting our incrementally longer track length clock once more as it sails by, gracefully unloading faint but empowered drums alongside echoic guitars and thin synth lines in quite a climactic closer that seems content to leave behind some of the more energetic and overly optimistic music of late. The enigmatically titled “****” devolves and sends us back to our miserable starting point, filled with cavernous drones in the beginning only to be replaced by delicate and humbling piano in the latter half. It gives a suggestion of something bigger and grander lurking behind at times; that thick guitar reverb intrudes its way into the mix on occasion, but it’s filtered out in this downtrodden, downtempo track. And the creeping piano of “****” makes way for companion toybox clicks and chimes and ringing xylophonic notes in “Regard sur l’Enfance (I et II)”, perhaps the most upbeat and carefree piece of the whole album. Eventually the relentlessly jovial tumult of repetitious xylophone riffs must burn out though; good things cant last forever and it closes on a few stuttering keystrokes of a melancholic piano that falls away in a rush of sad reverb.

So lastly we’re welcomed by the closer, the ten minute title track. It’s hard to know what to expect from it given all we’ve heard so far, but what emerges is unsurprising. Following the somewhat cresting opening minutes with their heavy drone we pick up a sad piano solo, slightly fuzzed out by a lo-fi hum, a final outro before the depressing reality hits once more and we slowly begin the downward spiral back into the dark drone fugue. with cold and thin piano strokes littering our descent. But the return journey to the bottom is a long one, we’ve come so far after all, and our final fugue is enormously protracted, slowly winding down the minute instrumentation and smearing into the background darkness over minutes.

Despite all my references to drones and pianos, there’s quite an electronic facet to this album that’s surprising at first glance. The reality is it’s nigh on impossible to appropriate Sigh to a specific genre, even a set of genres, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say it lies on the Ambient/Electronic threshold, as broad a brush as that is. The general tone of this album is uncertainty; it wants to break out of the conventional cul-de-sacs of melancholic drone and miserable piano but it doesnt quite have the impetus to sustain those bolder, more experimental and generally happier avenues. And in some ways, it seems almost content to settle back into its lonely, depressing ways in the end. It’s a good album, a little hazy sometimes but detailed and clever. I like it a lot.