Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Grouper - Ruins


Released 2014 on Kranky
Reviewed by Separator, 05/12/2014ce

Before 2014, it was always reasonable to assume that Liz Harris’s next album as Grouper would be roughly the same as the ones that came before. With the foggy, barely-there ambient soundscapes of her 2005 debut 'Way Their Crept' she created a world entirely her own, a world of distorted vocalizations and distant synth hums, which she has inhabited ever since. And with the exception of the aforementioned debut, and possibly 2011’s gorgeous 'A I A: Alien Observer', the quality of her output has been more or less the same, which is to say good, but not lifechanging.

Enter Ruins, her hauntingly beautiful latest album. Here she sheds the layers of synth ambience she used to cloak herself in and, for the first time, allows us to come in close rather than observe her from a distance. The songs are incredibly simple: just a piano and a voice, recorded on a four-track. After the brief opener “Made of Metal” which is nothing more than an ominous bass drum pattern and the ambient sounds of the space it was recorded in, “Clearing” is the first indication that this is not your ordinary Grouper album. Her words are still difficult to make out, but the fact that she’s even using words is a miracle by itself. Phrases emerge from the haze: “Maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love”, “Every time I see you I have to pretend I don’t”. The heartbroken sadness the words (and the mumbling, downtrodden way in which they are sung) exude is even stronger on the following track, “Call Across Rooms”. Rather than sing in the same register as her piano, as on “Clearing”, she rises above it, her voice delicate, shy, mournful. She’s calling to her lost love: “I have a present to give you / When we finally figure it out”. But all that comes back is the echo of her own voice; it’s over, but she isn't able to acknowledge it yet.

The instrumental piano interludes “Labyrinth” and “Holifernes” are simple, repetitive patterns that the room echoes back, making every new iteration sound slightly different. It’s a process she’s used before with great success, and that doesn’t change here; it’s just the instrument that’s different. The longer piano/vocal led songs “Labyrinth” (6 minutes) and “Holding” (8 minutes) don’t have the same devastating impact as the shorter ones that open the album, but they are haunting nonetheless, and the words (“I hear you calling and I want to run straight into the valley of your arms and disappear there”) continue to amaze, especially in the context of her earlier work.

The last track, “Made of Air”, taking up a sizeable 11 minutes of the 40-minute runtime, stands out here but would have felt perfectly at home on any other Grouper album, which only serves to emphasize the departure Ruins represents. “Made of Air” is, in fact, an outtake from Way Their Crept, and as such it’s made up of soft, slightly unnerving ambience that fascinates despite being very slight. As any minimalist artist (The Field’s Alex Willner for instance, or William Basinski) will tell you, that is no mean feat. Harris has been doing it for years now, doing it better than almost anyone else, yet she’s always remained a part of the underground thanks to her perennial shunning of the spotlight. With Ruins she’s finally allowing that bright beam to illuminate her. Who would’ve thought the results would be this good?


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