grouper - ruins

Album Review: Grouper – Ruins

grouper - ruins

By: Sophie MacArther

From the outset Ruins, the tenth record from musician Liz Harris, is remarkable in the way that it breathes and deals with space. It is an invitation into Harris’s state of mind while making the record on the coast of Portugal back in 2011. It feels personal and rooted in a sense of place, allowing each listen to transports us into her little world.

In spite of the sparse instrumentation used on the album, these recordings do not feel bare because so much attention is paid to how they live and breathe. They feature what sounds like chirping frogs at certain instances, rainfall, and an almost constant hum that likens to the sound of a distant sea. These sounds are incorporated as essential aspects of the sonic patchwork of each composition, likening the songs to living, breathing organisms despite their languid and drawn out piano and vocals and moments of silence. The varied tones of the piano consistently interplay with each other and with silence. The recordings have an interesting sonic depth: the vocals fit in the middle of the mix, sung in half-whisper, with Harris often layering multiple vocals upon each other. The piano reverberates beautifully around her melodies, and her lyrics frequently remain difficult to discern.

This is very much an album record, in the sense that the songs work as a cohesive unit, employing an all-encompassing sonic palate and progressing steadily through time. When the songs start and end it feels less like a moment to change gears than simply a moment to breathe before continuing on. The record’s structure begins with a percussive track and then two vocal pieces before moving into the instrumental “Labyrinth.” Here, the music is so immersive and meditative that when a microwave beeps at the end of the track it is exhilarating, an awakening return to earth before the next track, “Lighthouse” which refocuses attention with its beautifully layered vocals. The record then moves into an instrumental track again before another beautifully layered vocal track, “Holding.” The final track, “Made of Air,” shifts gears sonically. It is more drone-based than the rest, but no less gentle or moving; instead, it serves as a final, cathartic release to end the record. The structure of the record allows the listener to drift in and out of focus while gleaning its emotional effect throughout. It inspires multiple listens.

When listening to this record I was fascinated by how each time I heard it, I was transported to a very specific state of mind. My body assumed a certain posture and my surroundings took on a poetic beauty; my actions were committed with a heightened sense of perception. Ruins gives us space to reflect on ourselves. It is both melancholic and peaceful at the same time. It strikes a balance and beauty only possible with an attuned sense of space and subtlety, masterfully employed by Liz Harris throughout its 40 minutes.