Grouper, the project of Liz Harris,
drew abstract fragile spaced-out threnodies on a canvas of
droning slow-motion foggy ambience woven by trembling keyboards and guitars
Way Their Crept (Free Porcupine Society, 2005).
There is little more than slow echoes in Way Their Crept, the ultimate
The invocation of a cosmic shaman is mixed with the buzzing sounds of the desert
in Hold A Desert Feel Its Hand, yielding a
whirlwind of murky drones and reverbs.
Tremolo and distortion pick up strength in Zombie Wind,
that sounds like a Tibetan monk's remix of a
This piece segues into the lugubrious moaning of Sang Their Way,
something like a musique concrete version of a pack of wolves howling at the
The Tibetan influence permeates Zombie Skin too, but here the vibrations
By comparison, the sweet wordless lullabies of Black Out and
Where It Goes
are regular songs.
All of Grouper's creatures are short psychological vignettes except for
the nine-minute Close Cloak, which is better envisioned as a fantasia
of sorts, mutating from the ecstatic minimalist repetition of the beginning
into a thick nebula of pulsing black holes and wailing ghosts only to end
into a somber requiem-like murmur.
This is all very abstract and introverted, musical in a non-musical manner, a
blurred dreamlike collages of sounds,
the soundtrack to a disorienting Joyce-ian stream of consciousness
but without any of the tragic overtones; a post-mystical experience.
Grouper's avantgarde slo-core was at the same time more varied and more
Wide (Free Porcupine Society, 2006).
The wordless singing actually sounds like it is trying to articulate words
in Little Boat - Bone Dance (Audrey), which has more of a cinematic
than abstract quality.
A heavy vibration (almost a hard-rocking bass riff) propels
Imposter In The Sky into the space of
Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive,
although treated with the usual strategy of blurred repetitive minimalist.
The pianola elegy Giving It To You is actually a complex puzzle that
evokes old street songs from Paris.
On the other hand, Agate Beach is almost dissonant by her past
(melodious) standards: jarring drones that seem to float against each other
rather than in harmony.
The stringed instrument sounds like a zither in They Moved Everything
and it definitely accompanies the ebbing and flowing of the vocals rather than
simply weaving an atmospheric bed of drones.
The seven-minute Wide mixes the sound of water and a loud pulsing guitar
riff with the vocals.
Shadow Rise Drowned is the only piece that returns to the lulling,
elegiac and lyrical mood of the first albm.
As a transitional album, it contains plenty of ideas, but hardly a song that
can stand up to the quality of the first album.
The vocals were even more prominent on
Cover The Windows And Walls (Root Strata, 2007)
from the slow hare-krishna hymn Cover The Windows And The Walls
to the whispered fairy tales of Heart Current and
It Feels Alright, both of which seem to tell a story even
though it is impossible to make out if any words are actually used.
The latter is particularly touching.
The vocals, however, remain
as cryptic and inaudible as before in the slower, martial, gloomier and murkier
Opened Space and in the
subdued, howling and wailing of Down To The Ocean.
There are still moments of unpredictable creativity like when the wavering,
rude riff of You Never Came, coupled with a whisper that is only a hiss,
evokes a slow-motion version of Donovan's
Hurdy Gurdy Man.
The album closes with the sweetest vortex, Follow In Our Dreams, that
simply repeats a celestial melody around a simple guitar pattern, the ecstasy of
Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (Type, 2008) adopted a more
traditional song format while maintaining the otherworldly dimension
of her reverb-drenched, introverted, whispered dream-pop.
The winners, unsurprisingly, are the wordless elegies that hark
back to her first album, such as the six-minute Stuck, against a
much simplified backdrop of strummed guitar instead of alien drones,
the mournful feathery Tidal Wave
and Wind And Snow, a languid impressionistic soundpainting.
Even the brief distorted When We Fall, that sounds like the beginning
of a Velvet Underground litany,
is worth more than the various imitations of a traditional folk-singer, which
she obviously is not (best in that vein is the crystal madrigal Invisible).
Harris promptly returned to her narcotic atmospheres on the double album
A | A - Dream Loss / Alien Observer (Kranky, 2011), that
collects two EPs: Dream Loss and Alien Observer.
The former begins with
Dragging The Streets, a
gentle electroacoustic chamber lied for
ambient raga fluctuations and trancey litany.
The concept is framed by the extreme shoegazing of
I Saw A Ray,
for gritty droning noise and ethereal chanting,
and the eight-minute slocore
of Soul Eraser,
a lethargic multitracked lullaby
lulled by a turbulent sea of chords (like a funereal remix of
This is a strategy that can go both ways: derail into
confused mumbling (Atone) and
facile looped melodies (Wind Return), or
soar as a mythological creature, like the
ecstatic dilated mood piece A Lie and the
ghostly wordless whisper within a muffled rumble of No Other.
Alien Observer boasts the fragile, delicate, otherworldly
Moon Is Sharp, a slow-motion remix of
Enya fronting the Cowboy Junkies in a cover of Blue Moon, one of her most powerful
interpretations (and impersonations) yet.
The nine-minute Vapor Trails flutters away along a similar orbit,
barely revealing the dark (dissonant) side of its instrumental accompaniment.
Slow sedate repetition is the key to the compositions of this EP.
She Loves Me That Way indulges in
eight minutes of pulsing cosmic riffs and whirling sleepy vocals.
Violet Replacement (Yellow Electric, 2012) was her most ambitious work
yet: two lengthy improvised and mostly instrumental collages of field
recordings and electronics.
The trivial 37-minute Rolling Gate consists of dirty drones
that don't change much until about 28 minutes into the piece, when they
begin to fluctuate back and forth like waves, and then eventually pick up
Ten minutes into the celestial drone of Sleep, the timbre shifts to
a darker tonality. It takes 25 more minutes for the drone to become
significantly thicker and scarier. Unfortunately, once reached the peak
it simply begins to decay. Again, 51 minutes for such a childish idea is
a bit too much.
The Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky, 2013) consists of leftovers
recorded in 2008.
The songs are often too ethereal (Cloud in Places and The Man Who Died in His Boat) and quasi somnambulant Being Her Shadow.
There are only a couple of moments when Grouper abandons her passive state,
and it is to be even more passive, but at least in a more intriguing manner:
the psychedelic diffraction and elongation of Difference over a bubbling pulsation, and the psychological vignette Vanishing Point
Static lifeless litanies such as Cover the Long Way (to name one of
the prettiest) have a function that is the equivalent of
wallpaper: the decoration of a space that is meant for something else.
The something else is missing.
Ruins (Kranky, 2014), another collection of leftovers (this time from
2011), indulges in an odd form of spartan formalism:
piano elegies and instrumentals that de-emphasize emotion and prize the most
understated calvary of the human soul.
A sense of desolation and loneliness emanates from the musical
still-life of Call Across Rooms
We are supposed to appreciate the whispered confessions of
Lighthouse (with frogs in the background, what an amazingly original idea),
but they contain little more than the whisper.
And instrumentals such as Labyrinth are a bit embarrassing (repetition
of simple patterns that require only the most primitive of techniques).
The eleven-minute droning composition Made of Air, a leftover from 2004
that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album, is basically
added in lieu of a "bonus track", perhaps to redeem the mediocrity of the
preceding pieces, but it belongs with
Violet Replacement to the category of self-overrating ambient art.
This album is a difficult listen not because there are difficult musical
constructs (the opposite) nor because it is tiring (the opposite) but because
there is simply very little to listen to.
The artistic decline began after Dream Loss (2011), and it seems to be
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