Photo: Jason Bokros

Photo: Jason Bokros

The name 'Grouper' has always struck me as ironic. How can a name with such suggestion of togetherness embody the most solitary music? 

Ruins is perhaps Liz Harris’s most estranged album to date. She recorded the bulk of it in Aljezur, Portugal in 2011. The record sounds like the house she stayed in – an old upright piano, whispered lyrics from the corner of a dimly lit room, the sounds of dark thunder and rain, and frogs chirping outside the window. Her extensive use of piano on this record sets it apart from her previous releases like 2013's The Man Who Died In His Boat, and the otherworldly Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, both of which radiate sounds of her distinctive echo-box wash. 

'Made of Metal' opens the album with a faint heartbeat rhythm, setting the scene for what is to be a deeply sincere 40 minutes. An undulating piano melody begins Clearing, swinging back and to, back and to, with her every word. Labyrinth is a highlight for me. There are no vocals, but the complexity of a metallic drone evolves in the background, feeding into itself, perpetuating after every chord – it left relentlessly pressing repeat. Lighthouse is a weightless dance into a blackened sky – the listener is only kept grounded by the reliable ribbit of frogs outside. Meanwhile, Holding features an overwhelming vocal melody which attaches you to her alluring inflections and leaves you completely unaware that the track is 8 minutes in length. I consider the final track, Made of Air, to be a kind of dreamlike summary of the record, or her mood during that period in her life. Despite this impression, it was in fact recorded 7 years earlier in her mother’s house, which further indicates that Harris is one highly reflective artist.

Ambiguity is the forte of her ambient music. It prompts the listener to define it in any way that they see fit, and tie all the unlabelled emotion to ones’ own life. Harris often tracks her lyrics so quietly as to be unintelligible, followed by a generous saturation of reverb for extra disguise. It’s an interesting thing, to express oneself only to end up cloaking it.

Ruins is as subtle and considered as Harris's previous albums but the vulnerability showcased on her latest effort has been largely displaced by creeping resentment. This is something that is emulated by the iron piano sustains that whirr throughout the record. Ruins is a remarkable piece of self-expression, both for Liz Harris, and for those who take the time to get to know her.

Words : Alex Macdougall

AuthorDuncan Harrison