Saturday, September 17, 2011

Grouper- A I A : Alien Observer/ A I A : Dream Loss

It's difficult to express the kind of impact Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (hereafter referred to as Dragging) had on my life. “Difficult” because the impact has been subtle; I can't point to any specific revelations or feelings it's given me yet I know it's had an impact all the same. I think about it or hear its songs sometimes when I'm daydreaming or just after I've woken up. There is something profound and moving in the music of Dragging that speaks to me on a level similar to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. In both cases I can specifically define how the music works, how it was made, what genre it belongs to, and so forth, but all this objective talk of the “form” the music takes doesn't begin to capture the subjective experience, its “function” if you will. Yet these are albums that a wide variety of people have very similar subjective experiences with and I think that speaks to the success of the creators to bring their specific visions and ideas to life.

Superficially, Liz Harris's 2011 double album as Grouper, entitled A I A : Alien Observer/A I A : Dream Loss, sounds identical Dragging. She uses the same haunting, ethereal vocals, floating in from the distance on dense fog walls of reverb and delay, and the same indistinct guitar/organ drones, simple repeated melodic motifs, and soundscapes. The total effect is like standing in dense fog with the music seeming to hang in the air and also simultaneously to be slowly drifting away from the listener. So, pretty much like Dragging, then? Kind of. The subjective experience of this double record is quite different from Dragging. The songs on these two albums are longer, less structured, and less traditional. The music feels more unsettled and uncertain than the last album. This mostly comes on Dream Loss, where Harris even brings in some distortion on the noisy 'I Saw A Ray', a track that would seem more at home as an instrumental on a No Age record or perhaps on Wye Oak's recent Civilian.

If Dragging was a water album, Alien Observer and Dream Loss are wind and cave albums. The vocals on the aptly named 'Wind Return' from Dream Loss sound like they were recorded on a portable mic while standing on a windswept beach at dawn, Harris getting louder and less coherent to be heard over the wind and water. The title track of Alien Observer tells a tale of wanting 'to take a spaceship to the stars', which would seem to suggest a spacey sounding track, but it's the simplest arrangement (and shortest song) on the two records. A simple bubbling keyboard line and Harris's almost-discernible vocals come through relatively restrained reverb, suggesting a deep cave either on a high mountain or far under the sea.

By any normal standards, the A I A albums are monotonous and distant-sounding, neither engaging the listener nor providing any memorable songs. Hell, half the time the songs bleed into each other, as 'I Saw A Ray' does into 'Soul Eraser', as if the delineations between tracks are meaningless. Yet judged by the standards of capturing a moment, a feeling, or an atmosphere, Alien Observer and Dream Loss are as perfectly realized as Dragging even if the things they make you think or feel are more vague and less comforting than that record.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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