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.

Julie Fowlis – Biodh an Deoch Seo ‘n Laimh Mo Ruin (Single, 2007)

Writing is hard, I think people don’t give it the credit it deserves. It takes a conscious, physical effort for me to produce these reviews, to make sure I don’t cripple the grammar and keep them informative as well as concise, but not dry and turgid. Peculiarly enough, I find it the hardest to write about the music I like the most; trying to assign words to emotions is the most challenging aspect of any review and I frequently default to waffling in order to compensate as I aimlessly focus on every minute detail in panic. It’s for that reason that I try to avoid talking about works like Biodh an Deoch because I’m terrified that I’ll completely fail to vocalise my thoughts and not inspire anyone to listen to, what is almost unquestionably, one of my favourite tracks of all time. A year ago almost to the day was the first time I heard this track and fell in love; since then, tells me I’ve scrobbled it some 25o times, so the reality is I’ve probably listened to this one track maybe around 350 times in the last 12 months, which is a pretty scary thought in all honesty. It seems strange to me that of all things this would be the track that I would love above all others, but in many ways I suppose it makes perfect sense.

Whilst not strictly a single, it appeared on Julie’s 2007 debut LP Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe, or “As My Heart Is”, a record sung entirely in Scottish Gaelic and comprised of classic Scottish folk songs and melodies but with a certain, more modern, twist to them. All of her albums are the same, and she has recently released a new album just this year called Gach Sgeul that I would heartily recommend, but I digress. Biodh an Deoch, or The Drink Would Be In My Love’s Hand, is a really beautiful, earnest little number. Comprised of only eight, two line verses it’s a remarkably simple and straightforward song filled with wist and longing, talking of the distance and separation between her and her love, of his safe passage and ultimate return, of wishing to be by his side again.

The studio version is remarkably pared back instrumentally; employing only the acoustic guitar and bouzaki alongside Julie’s voice, they keep the track straightforward and intimate, being propulsive when necessary but knowing exactly when to dial things down in the more emotionally crucial moments. It’s this subtle and intelligent instrumentation coupled with Julie’s expressive voice that I think make this piece so powerful, even to the non-Gaelic speakers, of which there are many. It’s perfectly clear in the final two verses that there is a shift in the seriousness of the lyrics, and a cursory glance at a translated version proves the point;

Though I am here in Coll I long to go to Rhum

And from there to Uist, were I to get my wish

It switches effortlessly from quiet, sad and heartfelt to desirous and empowered in the space of a few seconds and it gives me shivers every time I hear it. The fact that I don’t understand the language being spoken is oftentimes irrelevant with Julie’s music as the flow and suggestiveness of her voice is sufficient to emotionally guide us through its various peaks and troughs. I think it is that fundamental lingual divide that makes this piece so fascinating to me, the fact that music and the manner of speech has the power to overcome the limitations of not understanding what someone is saying. In many ways it doesn’t really matter what’s being said in the end, it’s enough to know that it’s earnest and significant in some capacity, and I think it’s executed perfectly here. It’s hard for me to specifically define why I think this track is so astonishing but perhaps some of you might find something here you find interesting.


Benjamin Finger – The Bet (Watery Starve, 2014)


Benjamin Finger is back making music again following his unusual field recordings dominated release last year Listen To My Nerves Hum,  a storytelling piece that charted his migration across Europe and the hardships of upheaval. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the album’s biggest fan, it didn’t really bowl me over or anything like that; I thought it had something of an alienating quality despite its attempts at introspection and empathy. So I was naturally a little hesitant coming into Finger’s latest The Bet, which strikes an even more experimental line of attack than its predecessor.

There’s quite a strong Free Folk vibe emanating from this album at times, which is rather refreshing since it’s not something I come across very often. Opener “Faintheadedness” is a short and warped introduction to this soundscape, flowing effortlessly on gentle piano strokes and chopped but harmonious coos and moans before bowing out to the organic tumult of clanging triangles and assorted metallic instruments. This childlike attitude is immediately lost as we slip into the oxymoronically titled “Kids Dreaming Landscapes (That Might Have Astonished Parrots)”. What the content of these parrot-astonishing dreamscapes is we’ll perhaps never know, there’s an evasive and brooding atmosphere that seems to separate us from this subconscious world, the track filled with the shifting sands of carefully migrating drones stacked upon one another, distal shouts and cries sometimes breaking through the thick oppressive surface of the piece. The piano still grounds us and leads us out and away at the very end once the fog has lifted and we’re turned away.

That sort of alternative Folk side of things reappears on the slow and minimal turnings of mysterious “Rosencrans Exits”, the piano all smeared and warbling in this mindful mirage filled with hushed female whisperings. It’s a gorgeously delicate track, almost too good to be true; intimate and careful at its core, content to meander and not follow any established path: free. “Sulfurous Fog” flips this on its head and twists things around, suddenly desirous to introduce rhythmic elements wrapped in a much darker framework, establishing a distantly thudding synth line to propel the track through the skittering, warped glitches, echoic drone and faded feminine hums far in the distance. It’s a kaleidoscope in the dark, subtly bending and distressing that which can hardly be seen in the first place, and it’s almost like “Bad-Luck Planet” flips the switch and lets us see what we’re missing out on as it carries the disjointed but ultimately driven lines of melody out of the darkness, the twitching, chaotic mass available to see with some greater clarity as it ticks and jitters along uncomfortably.

“Nasal Breakdown” is a refreshing diversion from the aimless chaos of the previous couple of tracks, a beautiful and delicate mid-album interlude that removes all sense of confusion and randomness in its slow and measured piano and gorgeous reverbed vocals, not sounding too dissimilar to the beautiful Otavasiset Otsakkaha by Nuojova from 2012, another album that touched similar Free Folk vibes in the same vein as these tracks. Sadly the reprieve is minimal and “Angel-less Halo” is perhaps the most twisted piece so far, with words and conversations quite literally bubbling up through a muddied mix; like a radio between stations it jumps from fragmental guitar sounds to the thudded bassline of some far-removed, alien EDM piece for a few moments as it makes its bizarre journey across the airwaves. It eventually runs out of battery power and judders to an abrupt end and we’re turned once again to another enigmatically beauteous piece in “Time Steps”, the album continuing to flip-flop between disorder and peacefulness as those intimate coos float ethereally out of its heart, stable and stationary entities to deflect the occasional rushes of light static and tympanic beats.

Penultimate “Care In Motion” can’t let us down now that we’re so close to the end, and you’re right, it keeps this yin-yang approach up as it twists and distorts everything that was good about “Time Steps”, smothering the harmonious attitude and bringing the darker male voice at the back of the last piece closer to the action, whilst throwing on a blanket of swirling, misshapen, fragmentary instrumentation to poison its heart. Yet not everything is lost, for its closing moments seem want to reverse some of the destruction and speak out briefly, a final ray of light in the jumbled, uncomfortable dreamworld before we shift gears into closer “Horizonless Brain”, unquestionably the weirdest track of the album. The unlimited nature of our imagination is seemingly unveiled as Finger throws every conceivable texture he can at the wall; the distant throbbing of some pounding bassline matches the miserable, delicate guitar lines and cruising constant of the background drone, fed all by the writhing mass of disjointed, glitched instruments at the fore, only to close on a bizarre parting shot of deeply active, heck even danceable, synth.

I’ve written a number of conclusions that sort of come down pretty hard on the album but I think that’s unfair; I know, despite my purple prose I still do come away from this album with a sense of inconclusion and disappointment, a feeling that I’m missing some vitally important facet of this album that’s the key to unlocking its jumbled randomness and enjoying it. Sadly it’s too dysfunctional and aimless for me to really get into, once again wanting to force us away and hold us at a distance as we watch its partially-crystallised ideas unfold, frustrated that those beauteous Free Folk excursions are not more prominent and that its chaos didn’t feel so harshly deliberate. On on the cusp of falling in love but it’s still a ways off yet for me, unfortunately.