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.

Keaton Henson – Romantic Works (2014)

Romantic Works

Keaton Henson is perhaps best known for his heart-breaking Indie Folk past records, works that used his vocal talent to put across ideas and emotions and tell tales of love lost. So it’s interesting then that in the surprise arrival of self-released Romantic Works, Henson has decided to forgo his usual style and craft an album capable of standing up on its own emotionally whilst leaving the lyrical content at the wayside. Refreshing as it is, and despite its relatively conventional and not-wholly-unique performance, it’s still perhaps one of the most touching records of the year, and at only 30 minutes long, manages to say a great deal in a relatively short space of time.

Forged largely from Henson’s piano and Ren Ford’s cello, it breaks open to the janglings and tunings of preparatory opener “Preface”, a warm-up session that buckles down its drone lines and chaotic instrumentation rapidly to bring the rest of the album with its closing. But it’s hard to get a lock on proceedings following its simplicity, the album itself moving from one romantic fugue or encounter to the next; “Elevator Song” is a neatly gradual introduction to the reality of the record’s sonic style, marrying a duotone piano riff to the rising stringed drones of the cello as they lift each other out of the mix in a growing wave, slow and measured but breaking free of the confines of its early simplicity. It’s sparseness and desire for expansion come around again in the locked in “Petrichor” a little later on; unquestionably my favourite track of the album it sits wistfully in its chair by the window, watching and listening to the gentle rainfall outside and spinning out delicate pulses of aged and tired, flat piano. It’s got a quiet and subdued wistfulness, mesmerised by the confining inclement weather outside, painfully aware of its loneliness.

This mildly melancholic, solitary vibe is continued like a vein through a few other pieces as well; aptly titled penultimate piece “Nearly Curtains” is a reflective and introspective little number that’s driven by the haunting and faded cries and chatter of a distant child’s voice, a desire to return to those naive, innocent and simple times expressed through sad stringed drones and thick layers of ancient, suppressive reverb. “Josella” too has a streak of melancholia running through its initial sequences, with especially pained cello bringing in a rather sharp air amidst thick and wailing waves of distal reverb, mournful and crushed. It pulls through slightly in its latter half, however, as it pushes it all away with a mild textural and temporal crescendo that serves to just take the edge of things a little bit, the piano softening things just slightly.

The remaining works could be argued to be vaguely optimistic, or at the very least hopeful. The gorgeous “Field” is perhaps the most expansive piece as it marries gorgeously delicate currents of birdsong against quiet and contemplative cello, creating a bigger but not bolder atmosphere ahead of itself as it drinks in the view and rests in peaceful and quiet reflection rather contentedly. Okay, it still retains some level of loneliness but there’s a certain distracting force at work that takes our mind off things for a brief while. The same is true of predecessor “Healah Dancing” as it carves a deliciously solitary but rather cathartic slow-dance piece out of measured cello and melancholic piano lines, the soundstage padded by distant clatterings and tinklings as we populate the cathartic daydream with more fantasy creations, crowned by a wave of splendid but rather morose crescendo as reality rushes back.

Perhaps most importantly is the piano dominated beauty “Earnestly Yours”, a precise and deliberately crafted gem that carves out the measured pen strokes and the words behind the lines through the expressive tinkling alone. Like many of the tracks, it has the same idiosyncratic burst of energy towards its closing moments, gaining a brief confidence and momentum in an emotional burst that’s just heart-breaking to listen to, a wave of suppressed love and tenderness that we’re being forced to leave behind for lack of reciprocation. And it’s tempting to think that this record focuses on a single individual, an ex-partner that is pushing Henson through the degrees of separation, but the reality is this is a smeared and averaged work that highlights the sad truth of it; loss and heart-break is wrenching no matter who or what the circumstances, it just becomes a case of same shit, different story, but there’s still happiness to be found within one’s self that we must hold on to no matter what.

Benjamin Finger – The Bet (Watery Starve, 2014)

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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.