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.

Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra (Kranky, 1997 & 2013)

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It’s a rare day indeed that I take a swipe at an older release; it’s not for lack of new content however, since I’m currently sitting on an incredible backlog that I simply don’t want to face right now, and since things lately have been rather turbulent for me for a variety of reasons, I thought it would be nice to take something of a break and cover what is almost certainly my favourite Stars of the Lid release and also one of my favourite albums of all time. Made when I was just four years old and recorded on 4-track cassette, it’s one of SotL’s earlier works and not one widely regarded as their best, but its deliciously sparse construction summoned from nothing more than guitar pedals and synthesisers is altogether more affecting and concise than much of the more texturally complex Classical inspired work they would produce in the future.

“Central Texas” is that all important opener, the track that opens the gates to the initially unsettling sounds within. There’s something about this record that needs volume, it needs power and oomph behind it to give it meaning and significance as we hear those waves of menacing, distorted guitar come over the walls alongside a twisting and abrading current of wriggling, piercing synth. The piece’s slow oscillations sound like the breathing of some ancient giant on the cusp of awakening, only becoming reinforced as the soft drones of gorgeous segue “Sun Drugs” start to invade its final moments, illuminating the face of this old god. This 12 minute epic is perhaps one of their best known pieces; a delicately moving mass of beauteous, elongate drones and wobbles of unprocessed instrumentation proceeding with the utmost care, its graceful ascent brightening the horizon through the first half without obstruction before  finally breaching it in the second. It switches track and becomes empowered rather than latent, its character subtly altering to make way for a more rapidly evolving sequence propelled by rich flushes of bass to a tentative premature climax and languid diminuendo.

“Down II” offers a brief and uncomfortable interlude in its reversed and thrumming guitar lines and vacuous reverb, populated by stuttering and distal radio fragments and a brief but barely audio piano tinkling before rolling directly into “Central Texas”‘s big brother “Taphead”. Buried beneath the dense layers of guitar there lies voices barely detectable, smeared and echoic and almost inhuman as they accompany the early mix as distorted, moaning textures, breathing a kind of miserable life into the dark expanse of slowly rotating drone. There is a kind of incipient hopefulness captured as the track develops, though, in the slight mutation of the cyclical guitar towards its end; the exasperated lashes of bent chords and the powering down of the overbearing main theme loosen the fugue somewhat.

It makes way for the uncomfortable but inspiring melodies that shine out of one of the other stars pieces of the album, “Fucked Up (3:57 AM)”. It’s the first time we’ve seen visible and barely restrained anger emanating from this record, picking up with frightening velocity as it emerges out of a shimmering graveyard of early synth drones and morphing  into a mass of expansive and tortured guitars. Its internalised though, and self punishing, not an external battle but a psychological one, the sounds of a tormented soul trapped between choices, and its expressed in such a way that I cant even begin to describe, the music existing in some flickering middle ground between darkness, pain, and relieving catharsis, a necessary evil being expunged. It peaks with dense electronica and heavy drone breaking the backfield before slipping away as the delicate primary guitars fade to black, exhausted but acceptant.

The 25 minute, two part suite of “Music For Twin Peaks Episode #30” is upon us, and with it some bliss at last. The first part is a sumptuous mass of thrumming guitar drones (of course), rising and falling in paralysing waves of light, duplicated by a more stable and unchanging version of itself churning away contentedly with incredibly minimal evolution. It’s comfy and warm and fairly happy to remain exactly where it is, swaddled up in bed in that one perfect position. Discernible and harsher acoustic picking marks the onset of the second part, the warmth and safety being abandoned for harsher, more inorganic sounds. It’s overwhelmingly more oppressive than its predecessor; the reverb rushes to fill some yawning void and the guitar becomes markedly less ethereal and sympathetic, becoming cool and distant and happy to sit in a despairing melancholic well. But we break out, albeit slowly; the myriad of claustrophobic textures slowly becoming undone and working themselves towards a purer and more minimal sound ready for our vast finalé.

“The Artificial Pine Arch Song”, at 18 minutes, is very nearly their longest single piece, and what a way to close the album. It immediately converts the vaguely miserable remnant drones of the former into something altogether more glowing right from the get-go. Mirroring some of the vast and escapist work yet to come in their future material, its transcendental and effortless drones remind us that The Ballasted Orchestra is not an album centred upon reality, it’s a limitless dreamscape that has a certain fragility and loneliness; an important period of downtime for personal reflection and introspection that can be challenging and uncomfortable, but there’s also an associated, unimpeded dream world filled with limitless potential and happiness, and it shines so gorgeously in the soft and unwavering vistas of rich guitar pedals this track commands.

I miss old Stars of the Lid; not that their newer work isn’t good also but its length, diversity and complexity makes them challenging even for low-level listening. The Ballasted Orchestra exists within that holy ground that makes it ideal to fall asleep to, or read to, or work to, but whilst also commanding its subject to crank the volume and immerse themselves in its haunting drone sequences. I find it difficult to put this record on and not get caught up in its emotional currents, its terse introspections and romantic affectations. If you want my vote on the most accessible and most powerful Stars of the Lid release, especially if you’re trying to find a way into Ambient and Drone music in general, this is definitely it.

Christopher Bissonnette – Essays In Idleness (Kranky, 2014)

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Christopher Bissonnette’s albums are few and far between; after a 3 year break between his debut and sophomore LPs, Christopher has doubled that hiatus and taken 6 since the gorgeous In Between Words to bring us new content. That being said, I’m glad he’s taken so much time out because the quality of this release is beyond reproach. Angling to deconstruct synth ambience stereotypes, Bissonnette constructed his own audio gear specifically for this release, sounds built from the hardware up, and this refreshingly hands-on and organic approach to music production is apparent in the seemingly spontaneous melodies contained within.

This break from his original sound is notable from the get go with opener “Greenish In Its Light”. That deeply organic nature has still been retained but instead of the manipulation of field recordings and smeared fragments of sound, it blossoms forth warbling and dancing currents of energy, backdropped by a gooey warm drone line bathing the whole piece in sunlight. It takes off slowly as the sun rises and the day becomes firmer, shafts of light slowly making their way through the thick canopy of recharging, photosynthesising plants. But it flits and shifts gears rapidly as “A Deplorable Corruption” comes into view; it manages to hold onto some of those remnant, beauteous notes from the opener but there’s a fraying and noisily destructive edge to them, arriving in gentle but buzzing waves. There’s a definite resignation and crushed acceptance contained within, tiredly allowing those now cliche and typical synth lines to wash over itself with ambivalence, the paucity of its evolution and the sparsity of diversity mirroring some disappointing heterogeneity we’ve become disenchanted with.

“Entanglements” remains content to continue the sleepy, quiet atmospheres this album is slowly building upon, but banishing the growling, frayed inclusions from its predecessor and focusing strongly on piercing and delicate twinklings, spontaneous meanderings bursting out of the dark void that is this piece. It’s extremely minimal and deeply compelling; it sounds random but there’s something to it that also seems to hint at construction that’s so tantalising, like we’re so close to understanding its chaos. But then “Delusions” comes to sweep away that nonsense and ideology with its empowered and overbearing drones, banishing that childlike naivety away with broad brush strokes of lush, oscillating, flanging synth. Its slow rhythms roll over and over, carefully and emphatically repeating themselves with only the merest hint of evolution; the subtle changes in the patterns of speech between each argument but always fundamentally the same. It’s coarser in its later moments but never overwhelmingly so, just abrading enough to make its point clear.

A beautiful doublet is making its way into our hearts though, first with the effortless meanderings of fuzzy “Missing Chapters”. Slow onlaps of reverbed and hazy synth waft in from some distant memory, the whole piece a paralysingly hypnotic exercise in futility as we try to recall an event now absent from our minds. At first there’s an acceptance and dismissal but there are a few minor intrusions of uncomfortable and offkey synth that express temporary frustration at this gap, but they’re swiftly smoothed over and not brought back. Secondly, “Uniformity Is Undesirable” arrives, transforming those hazy migrations of synth drone into clear and sharp edges. We’re held in that dark void once more and allowed to see the full scope of the emergent melodies like we were on “Entanglements” as the wailing, depressive electronica rises out of the blackness, unimpressed and crystal clear in its opinions, not afraid to have its voice heard even if it is alone.

“Another Moving Site” judders into view on cyclical but distal and softened drone, like the revving of some distant generator. It slowly works itself to life, powering up the track and the shimmering and flitting synth fragments begin to intertwine themselves into the fabric of the piece, incrementally becoming more accepted and in the end just another part of the track. The generator continues its throbbing right til the end, but for the first time it changes pitch and then things begin to fade to black in the closing moments as we realise it’s a car or a truck and it slides into the distance, carrying us off with it into closer “Wasting Little”. Actually it’s rather lowkey, possibly the quietest and most refined and introspective piece of the record as it plays out on fragile, violin-esque notes. It’s precious and frail, creeping along with care and precision and making absolutely sure we’re soaking everything in and not wasting a moment, but it is still organically emergent and on the cusp of being non-random, still giving us that lively spontaneity that makes this album so good.

Essays In Idleness appeals to me in ways I find it difficult to define, much like his other releases. I think it’s the fact they always seem to land themselves within Uncanny Valley, forging fundamentally Electronic pieces from rather unconventional origins and freely evolving material, smearing the divide between rigid structure and spontaneously developing texture. I do really like it but I am hesitant because it does feel somewhat…empty, like there’s some emotional hole just taken right out of the core of the album. The individual tracks are pretty and conceptually interesting but feel like lifeless projections; pleasing but stark.