The Vinyl Frontier Vinyl Reviews
Grouper- Ruins 2014
This might be the least accessible album I’ve reviewed so far, so buckle up. Who is Grouper you ask? Well, it’s the stage name for Liz Harris, a multi-faceted artist in every sense of the word. A painter, graphic designer and musician, Liz Harris made her musical debut in 2005 with her self-titled album released via CD-R. Growing up in a commune might have had a massive impact on her life, as one would imagine. The commune was a part of the “Fourth Way” philosophical ideas of one George Gurdijeff. I’m not even going to attempt to get into that pseudo-scientific junk; all that is important here is that they called themselves “The Groupers” and that is where Liz Harris got her moniker.
Now the fun stuff; attempting to describe her music. Liz Harris would not care for this description, but it most suits her and our purpose here. Grouper is an ambient artist, taking after the drone style of music that came out of Gregorian chant many hundreds of years ago. Her music itself has many uses other than just listening to it. It’s prime meditation music for laying down in bed or sitting on the floor and just examining yourself and getting totally lost in the layers of tones and soft vocals from her music. Her earlier stuff is entirely synthesizer-based and little to no acoustic instruments were used.
That all changed on her seminal 2008 release, “Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill” where she broke out of her shell a bit and began writing slightly folksier songs on acoustic guitars, still with many layers of reverb and synths, but there was a clear shift away from nothing but drones to more songwriter style of songs. “Ruins” takes this one step further, and completely stripped away her reverb and pounds of synths to just a small upright piano in the middle of a small coastal residency in Aljezur, Portugal in 2011. The music was recorded on a digital four track recorder in mostly one take, live. This album is unlike anything else she’s done, so barren and unfettered by her previous comforting reverb and layers covering up her vocals. “Ruins” allows for her voice to be heard clearly, showing us how beautiful her voice on its own, and the sparse piano notes compliment her voice, which for the first time, becomes an instrument all on its own. We’ll feature two specifics tracks worth all of your attention.
“Clearing” is the second track on the album, preceded by the intro “Made of Metal”, which is just a minute of light drum thumping, like an ancient Indian drum chant. “Clearing” features a beautiful, hummable melody and the sweet tones of the notes being ever so slightly sustained by the sustain pedal. The song takes you instantly to a calmer place, but one wrought with some past battles with anger, as seen in these lyrics “And every time I see you, I have to pretend I don’t, You thought that it would help, but it’s only made us fall apart”
Ruins is an album of contradictions in many ways. While the music is so calming and peaceful, the lyrics and subject matter is not. As Liz Harris said herself “When I wasn’t recording songs I was hiking several miles to the beach. The path wound through the ruins of several old estates and a small village. The album is a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love.” While her vocals are so soft and beautiful, she is singing about the demise of her relationship, and of her own life. It’s a quietly heavy and dark album, one so soft you can fall asleep to it, and one so heavy you cannot bear it.
The final track I want to discuss is “Holding”, another beautiful piano piece, that starts off with just a few sparse notes lightly struck by the piano hammers. It builds up piece by piece into the melody that carries the whole song, with Harris gently singing the words “I hear you calling and I want to come, Run straight into the valleys of your arms and disappear there, But I know my love could fail you”. The song fades into the sounds of a thunderstorm Harris recorded, with the thunder crashing in the distance, and fades into the final track “Made of Air” which perfectly sums up that 11 minute ambient piece.
Ruins is a very special album for me, coming at a time in my life when my taste in music was evolving, along with myself as a person. Needless to say, it’s not a happy or uplifting album. However, it’s not all dim either. It’s a perfect album to completely fall into, and lose yourself in. It is in every sense of the word ambient and stuck in time; the music seemingly is floating in space in a ball of musical plasma, going no certain which way. Ruins is best played on a warm, humid summer night, and if you’re extra lucky, enjoy it on vinyl during a summer nighttime thunderstorm with a lava lamp the only light illuminating your room.
Until next time, take care.