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.

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Christopher Willits – Opening (Ghostly International, 2014)

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Last year, fellow Ghostly International signee Scott Hansen of Tycho unveiled his latest LP Awake, much to my dissatisfaction. After becoming increasingly more band-oriented over the years and especially welcoming guitarist Dusty Brown into the fold, it felt like Tycho had abandoned much of his original electronic character in favour of bland percussion and over-represented guitar work, allowing his own synth lines to become crushed and inconsequential. Luckily, it seems like Christopher Willits has produced the album that I wished that Awake was in his gorgeously flowing Opening.

Opener “Vision” is the bleariest and perhaps the most replete piece of the record, opening us to the emerging beachscape through thick MIDI chorals (oft repeated through the album), softly chirping local wildlife and thick, blissful drone lines that demarcate the horizon with their soft light. It’s all very plain and unassuming; beautiful but quietly and selflessly introspective, slowly waking to the vista unfolding before us and evoking some sense of satisfaction. “Clear” continues this forward progression, gaining some more traction and allowing the synth riffs a little playful space. The pacing is still luxuriously slow, however, with only the merest hint of propulsion emanating from light percussion as the drones shift and migrate away from their centre of obfuscation.

It’s almost as if Willits feels like he’s letting things get the better of him and the music is perceived as getting away, since “Ground” appears to almost stem the tide of increasingly growing instrumentation by relegating the lightly riffing synth into the far backfield and neatly out of the way, squashing whatever remnants are left behind into a thickly smeared reverbed haze. Some suggestion of evolution and breakout is tantalisingly played out in a few shuffling beats and a rising wave of increasingly urgent drones but it’s caught and the track fades quickly. The suppression continues into “Now” as well, initially enveloped in a thin layer of glitch fuzz to supplement the crushed melodies and recurrent chorals. There’s a certain downtrodden wist detectable here as the piece unravels, metamorphosing into a bigger and more expressive mass of big synth drones and assistant but intermittent percussion; a jovial facade to the underlying melancholia, perhaps?

Or perhaps not, as “Connect” rolls in and takes things to sweet new heights, introducing the acoustic guitar with some clarity for the first time alongside some playful Tycho-esque synth flutters and chaotic but empowering miscellaneous electronica. It proceeds rather tentatively at first but slips into a beautifully intimate and emotionally probing guitar solo of exquisite delicacy that just makes the entire track, a soft profession of desire and relatedness sold through its organic motions, all coy and sensitive, hesitant. The vast and uncertain vista of followup “Wide” ruminates on whether or not that display of affection was such a good idea, spinning out many of the familiar synth riffs and smeared choral samples we’ve heard thus far into endless, repetitive oblivion, mulling over the same things again and again, fruitlessly. It’s a little dry but a nice pulse of instrumentation towards the end makes up for it, a little surge of hope amidst the fugue.

We’re finally taken out of “Wide”‘s misery in closer “Release”, the summation of all our confined emotional consideration through this album and its cathartic abandonment. It’s the satisfied yang to “Vision”‘s yin, a twilight hour closer that rests contented in deep drone minimalism and the recorded snippets of the surf washing against the inside of our mind, the tide of sleep returning after this productive day. Sweet, faint guitar work melts out of the sun-kissed lo-fi haze that sugar-coats the closer, a faint smile on our lips as the album sinks into sleep. It’s a fragile and minimal emotional journey we’re taken on through Opening, but one that absolutely has a clear storyline and a satisfying resolution, migrating effortlessly and imperceptibly through lonely and hopeless fugues before seeing the opportunity and acting upon it, being a little bold and throwing this dissatisfyingly lonely and resigned existence to the wind, saying goodbye to the early emotional insecurities and finally becoming comfortably in its own shoes.

Ian William Craig – A Turn Of Breath (Recital, 2014)

Not since Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe last year have I felt this attached and empathetic to an Ambient Pop record; comprised of 12 tracks it reworks ethereal vocals and minimalistic lyrical content through cassette tape manipulations, crushing human and acoustic drone into a lo-fi fabric that weaves emotionally fraught and confused pieces from air. The beautiful opener “Before Meaning Comes” delivers this sound perfectly in smooth, fluidic stutters of thin glitch lines before delicate vocal filaments light up and coo through the warm static currents, so small and light and naive. In fact, the first three pieces follow this charming innocence before reality strikes; “On The Reach of Explanations” ensconces its angelic vocal lines in echoic distortions, speaking introspectively to the inside of a quiet mind before turning its Cantu-Ledesma-esque smooth drones into choppy and decayed fragments. Then “Red Gate With Starling” rounds out this initial trio with angelic beginnings as its human songs shine softly outwards, slowly unravelling and falling apart as its gentle loops fray and tatter.

It’s this that instigates the onset of the lonely rest of the album; “Rooms” is one of a couple of acoustic guitar lead pieces that crushes its lyrical content in aural obfuscation, its message buried and hidden away, too shy to come to light. But it’s largely an interlude, a bridging piece; “A Slight Grip, A Gentle Hold, Pt. 1” and then a little later Pt. 2 hold the key to the melancholic heart of this album.

“I allow my heaviness

a slight grip,

knowing something has shifted”

The first truly discernible lyrics peek out of the oscillatory tape malfunctions and speak of weariness in the face of change, of allowing sadness a little ground in the internal struggle. Part 2 is much like its predecessor but the lyrical content comes in straight away and alone, intimate and unafraid; it’s the first real clarity we get to witness and it’s striking as a result. Thick accordion drones melt in and heighten that downtrodden vibe in their sombre and slow motions, collapsing abruptly at the end and revealing the abandonment of caring as fading footsteps shuffle out of the desolate static. It’s a sign of the heavy resignation much of this album conveys; “Second Lens” sees the world through another set of eyes in its obscured and muffled electronica, soft Barwick-esque coos and sighs floating through the thickening fog before our eyes, while “Either Or” settles on weaving juxtaposing deep and soulful human thrums against more eager and active cries, at war with oneself. “I thought I was a hero”, Craig says with a heavy and resigned heart.

The heavy and damaged “The Edges” is not far removed from that indecision and confusion either, spinning around in a whirl of warbling, dense drone lines and fragmented vocal snippets, a blur of emotion and passing faces offering judgment and advice, none of it helping. So it’s up to closer “A Forgetting Place” for us to find solitude and internal peace; the second of the two acoustic guitar tracks it’s wholly more intimate as it allows us one last parting song, just between us. It’s heartfelt and minimal, the words unintelligible and distant despite everything, but the pained yet angelic coos alongside the tempered strums in its final throes are all we need to realise catharsis before we hear the guitar being put down and the album with it.

This is an album that uncovers more and more and yet divulges less and less with each listen, every spin managing to hold onto its confused jumble of emotional secrets whilst somehow offloading more onto the listener in its myriad of damaged tape transfers and ethereal vocals. Barwick taught me that the human sound can be expressive and exploratory, but Craig has shown me that it can be every bit as elusive and enigmatic and difficult to vocalise as our internalised thought, no one sound referring to one emotion, no set of sound representing hosts of feelings. This may be one of the best Ambient records of the year, simply because it puts itself on the line and opens its heart and head to us. Incredible.