Liz Harris, the woman behind the ambient outfit Grouper, whose latest release Grid of Points dropped last week, lives in Astoria. It’s a small town located on the very northernmost edge of Oregon, on a strip of land that abuts the Columbia river as it bleeds into the wide Pacific. To look at images of Astoria is to look at a town confronted by the ocean; the landscape slopes down to the bay, from which a solid steel bridge spans the dual horizontals of sky and water.
This openness, this sense of expanse, or horizontality, bleeds into Grouper’s musical output, which has always explored a liminal space between intimacy and distance. It sounds like secrets whispered into a void, which the listener is privileged to hear. She has previously spoken about how releasing an album was, to her, like sinking an object into a lake, unseen, before quietly stealing away. As such, listening to Grouper always feels like a privilege, and – sometimes – like a transgression.
Grid of Points is a concise work – lasting only 22 minutes in total – but continues the trajectory set out by her earlier, longer releases. Since her breakout album, Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, Grouper has gradually shifted away from reverb-loaded guitars and synths, which stretched like mist along an empty field; instead, she has begun using a more precise collage of piano, vocals, and musique concrete – it gives a greater sense of immediacy, and hints at the person behind the project. The seven songs on Grid of Points form a companion piece to her 2014 acclaimed album Ruins, but remain a point of departure.
Opening track, ‘The Races’, which comes in at under a minute, acts like a signal of intent for Grouper, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Multi-layered vocal tracks create a choral blast of sound, reminiscent of work by fellow ambient musician Julianna Barwick. The remainder of the songs, built around pianos, place Grouper’s vocals front and centre, in hazy pieces that, though experimental, remain open and accessible. Songs like ‘Blouse’, built around slowly progressing chords which slowly work their way towards the sublime, see Grouper’s vocals bleeding over the top of a piano base. ‘Parking Lot’ similarly sees Grouper echoing alongside ghostly pianos.
Grid of Points is an album built around negative space; silence pervades the songs, which are like fine bolts of lace, defined by absence. In tracks like ‘Birthday Song’, the piano and vocals simply fade away, a slight pause demarcating phrases. In ‘Driving’, meanwhile, which follows on from the gradual dimming of ‘Parking Lot’, this silence is broken by an unsteady intake of breath, as if Grouper is steeling herself for a performance.
Harris has described her role in Grouper as akin to a caretaker. In an interview with Pitchfork, she put it: “this music is a room that I take care of, I help decide what is accepted. Here distortion and mistakes, silence, deep sadness, and misunderstanding, they all have a place.” Grid of Points is an album that is humanistic, generous, and uplifting.
The recordings, which were conducted in 2014 in northern Wyoming, were broken off after Grouper fell ill; the music reflects the cold snap that was occurring outside at the time, as well as the fever that forced her to stop recordings. Nevertheless, the album, although short, is a whole body of work. In the last song, ‘Breathing’, the vocals and piano are cut across by a field recording of a coal train thundering by. But rather than simply using it as a punctum to close the album, Grouper allows it to linger for its entirety; as the seconds, then minutes, pass by, the listener appreciates small details, which – like much of Grouper’s work – linger long after the sound has faded away
Grid of Points
Artist: Grouper. Label: Kranky. Top Tracks: Breathing, Parking Lot. For Fans Of: Julianna Barwick, William Basinski, Tim Hecker. 22 minutes