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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Birds of Passage – This Kindly Slumber (2014)

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Finally a review for an album released in 2014, the upcoming sophomore LP from New Zealand native Alicia Merz of Birds of Passage with This Kindly Slumber.

Folk and Pop can always be counted on to turn up in weird places and found associated with a plethora of genres. Birds of Passages fills the same shoes as people like Grouper’s Liz Harris or Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval in this release that manages to span Dream Pop, Ambient, Slowcore and Lo-Fi Folk. It’s best introduced to us in the ethereal opener “Ashes to Ashes”, with crystalline and reverb heavy vocals floating gently through the thick drones of processed guitar. The comparison to Grouper had to be made at some point, so why not now at the beginning? There’s something deeply familiar in the smeared instrumentation and lazy melodies that can be likened to Liz’s meandering dreamscapes. Stunner and album favourite “Belle De Jour” is up quickly though, and it takes a much more menacing and creepy tone in its whispered and careful lyrics, steady drone undercurrent and simplistic synth lines. What’s to say? Alicia’s voice is an entrancing affair for the first half, creating an intimate yet also distant atmosphere through the subtle lo-fi processing, slowly making way for measured acoustic guitars.

As “Belle De Jour” warbles out we welcome the decidedly more motion filled “And All Of Your Dreams”, the notes of the steel stringed guitar ringing out in pulses of quivering distortion in this relatively short piece. The guitar drone is denser than ever but Alicia compensates by taking her hushed voice to new heights and smothering the music a little, preventing it from overwhelming her as she talks about her dreams and aspirations, keeping them from being swept away by time and commitments. Thus “Stranger” seems like a pretty darn upbeat incursion following the depressing minimalism of the tracks so far; admittedly not a great deal is different in terms of the base construction, the same strung out drones and reverbed vocals but it’s brighter, more piercing and more determined. “Sacred and secret” she sings in the most optimistic and bright tones we’ve heard thus far; still quiet but soaring in its own way, but quite ponderous and drawn out also.

But it’s ok because “Take My Breath” crushes the pacing once more and reinvites the fugue back into the album. The guitar comes to the fore a little further in a more unfiltered form in gentle arpeggios as Alicia croons over the top; it’s simplistic, which is saying something for this album since much of it hasn’t been exactly complex in construction, but it ekes out a lulling and uncomfortably calming atmosphere, one that bewitches in its sparse instrumentation whilst actually holding a much darker tone. “Yesterday’s Stains” is actually a little bolder in its construction, introducing piano for the first time albeit in a very smeared and rounded state where it’s difficult to tell one chord from another once the surrounding music begins to pick up. It’s a rather progressive piece really, with a rather optimistic outlook.

Finally closer “Lonesome Tame” comes in to remove us from our misery, its soft washes of synth and guitar drone something of a welcome respite, and it’s later sequences of more driven, clear piano strokes are rather cathartic as we brush the sleep from our eyes. Just when we thought there would be a track without lyrical content Alicia comes in with some characteristic vocals once more just to finalise and round the album off in this exceptionally glacial finisher.

I rather liked this album the first time I heard it, but successive listens have kind of dulled my senses and made me a little tired of the sound. “Belle De Jour” does still remain to be a fascinating and beautiful Slowcore single but the album as an entity is rather tiresome, as you can probably tell from my rather unenthusiastic writeup. Many of the tracks evolve in the same, predictable way and the ethereal vocals work up to a point but they hover too frustratingly on the edge of comprehension for me; they’re not clear enough to be unravelled so they become too unclear to be useful in the grand scheme as all the tracks just smear into one experience. Ok, beautiful at times, but ultimately somewhat, well, dull.

Raum – Event Of Your Leaving (2013)

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We continue with recent 2013 albums in the wake of the Top 20 list published a few days ago with the new collaborative effort between Grouper’s Liz Harris and Jefre Cantu Ledesma with Event of Your Leaving. It’s a collaboration I was very excited to see happen; two somewhat disparate but relatively thematically similar artists coming together, but the result is somewhat lacking. Liz takes over a great deal and we dont see much of Ledesma’s abrasion here, but that’s not to say it’s a bad release, quite the opposite in fact.

Opener “In Stellar Orbit” is a hefty introduction to this album, clocking in at a mighty 13 minutes and dominating the runtime of this relatively compact release. Those already familiar with Grouper’s sound will perhaps be relatively unsurprised by this track; dreamy and simple repetitious guitars float unambitiously and lazily in the night sky, circling round and round in a hypnotic and endless fashion, serenaded by Liz’s hushed and smeared vocals and a secondary set of warped and clipped vocals shining and wavering uncomfortably above. There’s practically no hint of Ledesma anywhere here except in perhaps the deeply distorted vocal snippets that warble dangerously, but it’s a long piece and there’s room for maneuver; the closing minutes abandon the previous warmth and turn cold and harsh, with unforgiving drone piercing through a background fuzz that has seeped in surreptitiously. It’s the onset of the winter months in our annual rotation around our local star following the pleasant and easygoing haze of summer, the freezing of our hearts following the passing of a loved one that previously warmed it.

Ledesma kicks the life back into the album following the mournful end of the opener in “Blood Moon”, however, with a fiery but non-abrasive thicket of noisy guitar drone creating an entirely more turbulent piece. Banished are Grouper’s delicate and naively simplistic little melodies and in are the rich and empowered works Ledesma so lovingly crafts. Liz can still be heard serenading this boiling noise and Ledesma also seems to have some kind of even more distant overprint, and they’re beautiful additions to the textural onslaught. But the torrent dies away the same way as it did in the opener to be replaced by soft and cool reverbed drones right at the end as the full moon sets below the horizon and the night truly envelopes the land once more.

The title track creates a sandwich of sound as it returns to the seemingly Grouper lead style of sparse and reverb drenched guitar, minimal piano and barely there voices. There’s distinct sadness and sense of loss in this piece that reflect it’s namesake however, something that has not been present thus far. Liz sounds far away and not just literally but also emotionally, there’s a flatness and melancholy palpable through the quietly mourning music that has suddenly sprung up. This theme continues somewhat through into perhaps my favourite track of the album “In Held Company”, which sounds almost like it could have come out of AIA, but with a twist. The piano is brought right to the fore, promoted upon realisation of its potential as an instrument to induce sadness. All the extraneous detail and faint record crackle fall away only to be replaced by Liz alone, consoling herself in the empty darkness for a short while before the barely-there sequences of drone appear once more in the extremely minimalistic final throes of the track. It says so little but the void speaks far more than the music ever could.

It’s difficult to follow up the incredible peacefulness, even if it was somewhat unsettling, of the previous track, but closer “Blood Loss” does it somehow. The message is startlingly clear and totally at peace with the decision that life is just not worth living without you in it. Liz’s voice comes in the same gentle pulses as it always does but there’s something dark and menacing underlying the track, a deep and growing rumble that shakes the track at its very core, a distant yet immediately affecting disruption in the fabric of the music; the blood rushing out of our ears, right out of our body. It never really gets going because it doesn’t have anywhere to go, the entire thing just fades away into a crumbling, rumbling oblivion, a peaceful and uneventful movement into darkness and then…nothing.

It’s a strange release in that, as we progress through the album it’s difficult to see the bigger picture of what the pair are leading up to and trying to put across but once it comes down to the closing moments the leadup really is everything and the jigsaw slots into place at last. Suicide is not an instantaneous decision, it’s not something that just pops into your head and then happens, there’s a slow and drawn out process of realisation. In this case the turbulence and disarray proceeding loss is made known in “Blood Moon” and goes downhill from there as we sit wistfully in silence bringing back up old memories and trying to make sense of it all before we go ahead and slip away into the darkness ourselves in the closer. It’s a dark album, there isn’t much in the way of light listening, but it’s easygoing and relatively accessible, even if it has challenging themes. I like it a lot, but I think there could have been something else if Ledesma had been given the chance to craft some of his bigger and bolder pieces a little more.