Release Date: Oct 31, 2014
Record label: Kranky
Deep calls to deepin the roar of your torrents,and all your waves and breakerssweep over me. – Psalm 42:8 “There is a deep which answers to the deep of human ruin. ”– Charles Spurgeon, “Sermon 865: Deep Calls Unto Deep” “Funny that we still haven’t figured it outThat we still turn in circles”– Liz Harris, “Call Across Rooms” A I A, the masterwork of Liz Harris’s aesthetic and conceptual focuses as Grouper, derives its twinning title from the opening line of the above verse (“abyssus abyssum invocat”).
In the introduction to Tate Britain's ‘Ruin Lust’ exhibition of earlier this year, it was explained how 'ruins are curious objects of desire: they seduce us with decay and destruction. The ruin may remind us of a glorious past now lying in pieces, or point to the future collapse of our present culture'. Liz Harris’s music as Grouper has always been in thrall to ruin - the wreckage of emotional devastation, the material ruin of recording techniques (fractured and crackling tape loops - whose ruinous nature was exposed by William Basinski - feature heavily in her music and live performance), or the ruinous landscape of the altered zones of consciousness: depression, insomnia, and sleep.
What happens in the margins of the music Liz Harris makes as Grouper is often as important as the music itself. In a performance at Krakow's Unsound Festival earlier this month, the rattle of a film projector added a layer of instant nostalgia to her murky swirls of voice and guitar. Much of the time, Grouper's music is so diffuse that there's no longer any distinction between center and margin anyway, no difference between foreground and background.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. It's OK to be on your own. It's OK to be sad. Grouper is right there with you. Liz Harris' tenth studio album recalls a period of her life spent in Portugal during a 2011 residency at Galeria Zé dos Bois. During this time Harris recorded Ruins on ….
When Liz Harris says she made her 10th album “pretty simply”, the Portland native is actually playing things down. These eight tracks feature little but voice, piano and tape hiss; and if it weren’t for the quality of her songwriting, ‘Ruins’ would risk being defined by how doggedly lo-fi it is: crickets hum in the background; a microphone beeps loudly when the power cuts out. Though it’s hard to pick out many lyrics, the combination of Harris’ mumble-sung vocals and her sad, stark piano chords is strangely affecting.
As Grouper, Liz Harris always brings purpose and heart to ambient music's diffuseness, but rarely with as much intimacy as she does on Ruins. Where The Man Who Died in His Boat focused on the haunting atmospheres that surrounded its much-lauded companion piece Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, here Harris concentrates on songs. Recorded largely in isolation during a 2011 artist's residency in southwest Portugal, Ruins offers a much more naked version of Grouper's music than ever before, one that makes the most of its natural beauty as well as the environment in which it was recorded.
Liz Harris’ recordings as Grouper have painstakingly established a distinctive and enveloping sound. Her high watermark as an artist is arguably 2008’s majestic Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, but subsequent albums have sustained her detached and otherworldly atmospheres. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find Harris completely deconstructing her sound and approach on Ruins.
The 100-second opening track “Made of Metal” begins in silence. There’s a sense of ambient noise, but minus the noise. You sense you’re hearing the sounds of a place, but what you hear is mainly nothing; it’s the sound of existing. The sound of a quiet room. Then you hear a beat, almost ….
Liz Harris wrote and recorded the majority of her latest Grouper album using a bare-bones setup of a piano, mic and portable four-track during a gallery residency on the southwest coast of Portugal. Consequently, Ruins sounds very much like it was recorded in remote isolation — a sort of ambient-folk field recording, complete with creaking floorboards and one stray microwave beep creeping into the makeshift studio atmosphere. While the documentary vibe of the album is entirely engaging, immediately plunging the listener into a very real physical context, this is an album that requires a serious effort to unpack.
Liz Harris, aka Oregon-based artist Grouper, once played an eight-hour show meant to help concertgoers sleep and relax. That's a testament to the kind of music she makes: subtle, ambient, calming. On Ruins, her textural sound is even more stripped-back, built from only her light voice and upright piano. Harris recorded Ruins back in 2011 in Portugal, where every day she hiked several miles through a small village and past dilapidated estates to the beach.
When I recently interviewed Liz Harris about her new album, she said something that stuck with me: “I was living by a popular myth, that if I didn’t talk about something, it wouldn’t be a problem. Ruins helped crack me open.” Followers of her work as Grouper might identify strongly with that sentiment. From the recent, spectacular double album A I A to earlier records such as Way Their Crept and the later Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, all of Harris’s solo albums are apt to bring to the surface inchoate memories and emotions – or, as she might put it, to crack you open.
In one of the internet’s many corners, the phenomena of “ruin porn” has been a rather large movement within photography in recent years. Essentially it focuses on the documentation of urban decay, usually in the aftermath of economic downturns, but at a base level, ruin porn is about rediscovering beauty in the destruction of former glories. Ruins, the latest album from Liz Harris’ Grouper, is a peculiar and beautiful monument to the ruins of the past; a document, Harris wrote in the release notes, to “living in the remains of love.” The bare facts of Ruins’ creation given to us by Harris in those notes are more relevant than most to understanding this record.
Grouper — Ruins (Kranky)Trying to characterize Liz Harris’s music isn’t easy. There’s a haunted quality present throughout all of it; at times, she exacts a harrowing structure from the music she plays, while in others, she lends it a more abstract quality. Her two A I A albums released in 2011 were subtitled Alien Observer and Dream Loss, and those two descriptions, more than anything else, help establish two poles around which much of her work coalesces.Harris’s new album Ruins stands as, arguably, the most song-based work in her discography, which isn’t to say that this is a pop record by any stretch of the imagination.
The presence of absence permeates Liz Harris' new album as Grouper, Ruins, to such an extent that it becomes a deeply industrial album. Or post-industrial perhaps, in that the recordings on the album are perambulations around collapsed buildings, rather than the collapsing buildings themselves. Ruins remain a structure – the song titles create an unusual symmetrical acronym – but thwarted structures nonetheless with the luminescent figure of Grouper stealing through this expansive landscape.
opinion byBRENDAN FRANK The songs of Liz Harris, aka Grouper, are the musical equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. No single moment goes for the throat, but the grand, understated sweep of her songs and albums as a whole are undeniable. The negative space is as important as the sparsely arranged instruments, and silence is as powerful as any chord change or drone.