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.

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.

Croatian Amor – The Wild Palms (via nude selfie, 2014)

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Artists and audience rarely get to experience a real sense of intimacy with one another; the listener is often allowed a frank insight into an artist’s emotions as expressed through their music but it’s difficult for the artist to get anything in return. Croatian Amor’s Loke Rabhek recognised this one-sidedness and decided to only make his latest release available…if you send him a nude selfie. Admittedly I came by this album the cheat’s way through a leak but I like the notion of giving something more personal and intimate than money in reward for music, although at the same time the prospect does make me a little queasy knowing an unknown number of nudes are going to be stored away on Loke’s computer indefinitely.

Regardless, our personal display of intimacy is reciprocated with a certain quiet and sparse familiarity in the dismal, low-key synth lines, piano fragments and processed guitar that primarily create this record. Opener “The Madness of Summer” invokes some of the feelings of cabin fever and heavy, sleepless nights trapped in a muggy and humid lo-fi fuzz, our minds ticking over restlessly as we fret on how much sleep we’re going to get as the synth riff ticks over slowly and endlessly. Sleep finally seems to be granted to us in followup “Forever Wild Palms” as the pacing is crushed, with minimal piano tinklings draped in a fuzzy layer of subconsciousness welcoming us into the dark and uneasy dream world.

This disquieted sleep turns into the ethereal setting of “There Is Always Tomorrow”, with distal synth drones floating mysteriously through thick cassette fuzz. There’s a certain present hopelessness and darkness that’s allowed to manifest unchecked now that the conscious mind is no longer able to quell its worries and concerns, but there remains a lingering belief that whatever is wrong may still be righted in a new day. It’s perhaps one of the strongest pieces of the record alongside its companion “Everything Must Go”, which seems to contain something of a late 90s Psytrance or Progressive Electronic vibe in its destroyed but playful rhythms, teasingly migrating through the destruction to breach the surface as distorted echoes of their former selves, remnants of a time long since passed. It feels like a call to abandon the belief that the things we love are going to come back, a reminder that there exists a shinier future ahead but only waning nostalgia behind us.

The final two pieces of this short, 30 minute excursion are perhaps something of a weaker display than what we’ve seen thus far in my opinion; longest track of the album “Angels of the Afternoon” pushes the limits of repetitive acceptability that the other tracks dared not approach as it spins out admittedly suspenseful swirling fragments of processed guitar strums and piano snippets, but this heaviness and menacing synth drone fabric is allowed to continue without significant evolution for nigh-on 7 minutes and honestly I find it tiring. Luckily, closer “Only The Strongest” does pull things back a little bit in its very empowered movements of energised guitar riffs and jangling electronica, surfing the rush of the noisy crowd we hear peeking through the distortion at the beginning. It’s been a productive sleep, perhaps, since it feels like we’ve processed and digested something in doing so and overcome some particular internal emotional struggle, ready to face the tomorrow we dreamt about.

I love the uniqueness of this concept and the controversy it seems to have stirred up in people, with many questioning “artistic integrity”, others saying things like “true fans will buy the music regardless” and generally talking about how demeaning it all is. But I think it makes a pretty great point not just in regard to the disconnect between artist and listener but also how we’ve seemingly become fearful of our own bodies collectively, scared of having other people see them and not trusting others with images of it. Humans have been paying for sex for a long, long time, lots of people vehemently shun that as well as, apparently, using it to “pay” for music. A clever concept, and it’s not bad on the music front either.