Liz Harris, A.K.A Grouper presents ‘Ruins’, a very personal series of compositions that sound a little to private too be enjoyable.
Track one Made of Metal, starts the album off with the beating of a very simple, primal sounding drum. It is accompanied by field recordings sounding like a lake or stream at dusk. Crickets can be heard chirping, everything sounds natural and calm. The drum adds a sense of apprehension or caution to the track. It’s as if something is stalking you through thick woodland. Suddenly the sound of twigs breaking underfoot and a shuffling noise behind you causes the drum to beat faster and harder, putting you on edge. The track ends, it feels rough and almost animalistic, with a realism lent from its field recordings. It’s a good start to an album.
Clearing begins with a similar sounding field recording playing alongside Harris on her piano. She sings softly and the keys stand out in the mix. The melody is pleasant on the ear but feels like it should be carrying stronger, clearer vocals. Harris is audible, but only just. Like she is rehearsing late at night, not wanting to wake anybody up. There’s a rasping, airy quality to her voice throughout the majority of the track like she’s whispering, it feels secretive. At some points her voice is clearer, beginning to reveal a sense of emotional heartache and pain. “and maybe you were right when you said” “How can I explain why” “So take your sad song” Just a few of the many lyrics that start to paint a picture for us before they become unrecognisable smudges. The track slows in pace towards the end, as if Harris is trying to emphasise a message that we are unable to translate.
Call across Rooms starts with more emphasised but equally as whispery vocal calls from Harris. She plays slow chords and keys that emphasis on her voice. Which is irritating to say the least, as the only phrase I can properly distinguish without skipping back on the track is “Maybe we can figure it out” . The sparse instrumentation used places even more emphasis on the vocals and fairly bland keys Harris plays.
Labyrinth is the halfway point on the album and its lack of vocals come as a welcome relief. The track sounds like part of a film score. It is fairly simplistic, repeating the same basic chords and keys with little variation for nearly four minutes. It is tranquil and easy on the ear, however it feels again like a rehearsal, or idea that she is drafting instead of a finished product. At the end of the track the beeping of a microwave oven sounds in the background and the music trails away.
Lighthouse begins with some familiar sounding field recordings and a pleasant melody from Harris’s piano begins to play. We are then greeted by the same whispering murmurs from Harris. I can just about make out the first lyrics “I had a dream” but my brain can’t decipher what follows. Harris lets out a gentle, sweeping moan of emotional hurt whilst she plays that tells us more about what she might be feeling than any of her lyrics so far. This is one of the best tracks so far. The melody she plays carries an emotional depth throughout and finally enables me to feel something. That being said, the keys she plays are what grabs my attention, her voice is lost for me. This track also feels like the most structured and finalised on the record so far, like it was meant to be heard by others.
Holofernes is a short, purely instrumental track which demonstrates how well Harris can play. It’s a beautiful composition that feels a lot more involved than the previous instrumental piece. There’s more variation and range in the keys she is playing. Again it sounds filmic, like part of a score. Muffled recordings play in the background. Possibly running water? It’s hard to tell. At times you can almost hear creaks coming from the chair that Harris may be sitting on whilst she plays. The sound is romantic, personal and graceful.
Holding, the second to last track starts slowly, with restraint. Care and thought is being taken over each note that is played. A short pause and the keys fall into a melody that springs to life like a flower in bloom. Harris sings, finally we begin to hear what she is saying. At times it’s still a struggle but overall she is much clearer and her voice carries a lot easier. “I hear you calling and I wanna’ go, straight into the palace of your arms and disappear there” “The tears fall down in patterns on the windows” Harris gives us just enough information to help us build a story in our heads. It doesn’t make up for how irritating some of the previous tracks are at all. Her piano gently fades away, heavy rain beings to fall and a storm surges out of the night sky.
Made of Air mixes in directly from where ‘holding’ ended. The remnants of the storm sound far away. Suddenly we are greeted with a muddy reverberating synth sound that loops and decays slowly into a single evolving tone. This is new, refreshing and instantly captures my attention. After a short while the tones slow and then begin to build in complexity and texture before shifting in pitch slightly, sounding alien and threatening. The sound becomes more intense and then suddenly dies, creating a new calmer melody. This track and ‘made of metal’ are completely different in style to any other on the album. They show Harris’s versatility and her execution of more experimental production methods. The synth drones slowly fade out and fragment after eleven minutes and the album ends.
‘Ruins’ was not a comfortable listen for me. It felt voyeuristic, like I was spying on the secretive rehearsals of an artist plagued by emotional hurt. The first and last tracks didn’t seem to fit with the context of the rest of the album and if I’m honest, Harris’s vocals grated on me start to finish. The album definitely improves in the latter stages and Harris seems to grow more confident. Overall this album does not click with me, I can’t see myself revisiting this anytime soon.
Written by Andrew Everington – 02/04/2017