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.

Hanan – Sonder (Inspirus, 2014)

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“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.

 

Marble Sky – Marble Sky (Students of Decay, 2014)

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I’ve thought long and hard about how to talk about this album and every version just didn’t seem quite right; I went to walk the dog a little while ago and thought to myself that perhaps I was approaching this album the wrong way, that instead of talking about human love and emotional fugues I should talk about how it could be interpreted in this moment. The realisation came after looking up at that orange, dismal curtain of light pollution overhead, that which would otherwise be grey in daylight; a part of Autumn’s encroachment and the subtle shift of weather from Summer’s vaguely acceptable heights to Winter’s ultimately grey, dismal fugues, and I think that seasonal evolution is perhaps the best way to approach Jeff Witscher’s new compilation album Marble Sky. 

His two previous albums are fused and appear chronologically, with debut The Sad Return appearing first. This first half for me feels like the more emotionally damaged, the more morose and resigned of the two; the opener of “Pulling Up Grass Under a Blanket” arrives in tidal washes of white noise, pulses of melancholic drone supplementing it with their vague, hazy turnings. Like each of the pieces it grows in textural and emotional complexity across its span, with thick horn blats eventually calling out of the foggy mire, waking us up with urgency as the first Autumnal mist descends. “Dull Hue” puts on a stronger performance, the new day dawning fully and with it a cavalcade of smeared, processed guitar drones cutting through the background fuzz. We’re becoming aware of the liveliness of Autumn in its crashing waves of drone, with bolder and more colourful, piercing notes cutting through the mulch as life picks up the pace to ready itself.

“What You Might Forget” attempts to keep us grounded and not forgetful of the next chapter in the story, trying to get us to remember Winter’s woes through its scouring walls of obfuscating static. It’s a track long struggle that eventually sees the softer drone lines make themselves heard above the clamour with an accepting heaviness, seguing into almost violin reminiscent oscillations at its end, a confused and fluxing emotional journey that can’t decide whether it’s pleased or sad to see the end of this life-year.

The second half sees a portion of Marble Sky’s sophomore release featured: Low God/Lady. “A Shining Juniper” makes for an initially menacing introduction to this side of things as it moves in on dark, growling distortion, but it quickly falls away into perhaps the airiest and most beauteous piece of the record, unwinding a blissful haze of distant, delicate drones. Golden light shines through the trees in warm, joyful flutters of sharper and brighter synth lines later in the piece before it dips low enough to be continuously present, beaming out of the mix. Followup “Sunset on Low” is the shortest piece at a mere 5 minutes long and is something of a bleak, minimalistic and chugging interlude between its bigger brothers, sitting motionless in melancholic hibernation as time slides miserably past in a bleary, dim haze of shifting drone, just waiting for that final day.

The closer “Lea; Crossed Eyes” is where it all comes to a head though, and is unquestionably my favourite track of the album and one of the finest drone pieces I’ve heard in a long while. Early, miserable drones swirl and sit in their fugue, turning uneasily before a bolder line chastises them over their misery and castigates them from the piece in favour of an emergent synth line that bathes the track’s extensive midsection with a contented and quietly satisfied light; thin and shimmery it unwinds ahead of the stunning final four minutes of overwhelming, eviscerating catharsis. It grows to a wall of stereo release, a destructive wave that terminates our lovely green leaves with pleasure now that we’re ready to move on and tackle Winter, leaving our concerns behind now that it’s too late, embracing our fate head on.

The changing of the seasons is an unstoppable force that nature must bear without question; the first half buries its head in the sand and struggles toaccept its impending fate, not ready to shed its leaves or go back to school or university following the luxurious Summer months. But Marble Sky comes to terms with that inevitability in its second half, embracing the challenge and enjoying basking in Autumn’s crispness and soft, golden glow one last time before the fleeting moment passes and the dirge of Winter arrives. I’m floored by the beauty and cohesion of this release and I honestly can’t get enough of it; there’s no question that this is making the end of year list for me.

You can find more details on the impending vinyl reissue, and stream The Sad Return, at Students of Decay