Grouper


(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Way Their Crept (2005), 7.5/10
Wide (2006), 6.5/10
Cover The Windows And Walls (2007), 7/10
Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (2008), 6/10
Alien Observer (2011), 7/10 (mini)
Dream Loss (2011), 7.5/10 (mini)
Violet Replacement (2012), 6/10
The Man Who Died In His Boat (2013), 5/10
Ruins (2014), 5/10
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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 psychedelic hymn. 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 Jimi Hendrix solo. 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 moon. The Tibetan influence permeates Zombie Skin too, but here the vibrations are gentler. 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 corporeal on 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. In fact, 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 humility.

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 Mazzy Star). 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 volume. 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 Clearing and 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 accelerating.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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