In the spring of 2009, I went to an Animal Collective show with a friend of mine, during their Merriweather Post Pavilion tour. Before the show started, there were a few murmurs about the identity of the opening act, and who they sounded like. But when the time came, it wasn’t a they: a single woman took a seat near the front of the stage, and began playing notes on her guitar, and quietly cooing into the mic, all the while with her hair in her face. A few moments passed, and she leaned forward to manipulate a small FX board (it may have been a single pedal; my memory is a little hazy) in front of her, toying with the all-encompassing wall-of-sound that she had created. Throughout the maelstrom, jaws dropped and there were hushed tones of people turning to their friends and no doubt asking, “what is this?”, but the one thing that was missing was anybody truly talking: it was a sold-out show in Portland, packed to the brim with people who were rapt in the sonic mist swirling around them. And when it was over, the woman stood up and left. My memory is a little hazy on whether or not she murmured a “thank you” before leaving, but once she had left, the stunned silence grew into a swarm of bees, cheering for what they had just seen.
This show was in 2009, which was not long after that woman, Liz Harris, aka Grouper, released Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, an album as gorgeous and haunting as you may expect with a title like that. Grouper is a lot of things to me: a truly perfect wall-of-sound engineer, the only person to come close to achieving the sound I want to make, and the reason I stopped smoking pot when I was on sick leave after my wedding. Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill was a quiet masterpiece, and proof that, amidst all of the musicians experimenting with soundscapes and tape loops, there was one person in the thicket who had decided to go the other direction with those sounds, and it has always paid off.
Above video: the exact reason I stopped smoking pot.
So, here we have A I A: Dream Loss and Alien Observer, the two-part follow up to that record, and it brings us, essentially, right back where we were before this. In the three years since Dead Deer, Harris has proven that, if you find a method that works, you should perfect it as much as you possibly can. In other musicians, Harris’ unwillingness to progress and establish new ways to express her sound might be seen as a character flaw or a weakness, but not here. In place of artistic advancement, she has supplanted a talent for not only sound manipulation, but mood manipulation: the two albums have a distinctly gray and static feel to them, somehow feeling like the sonic equivalent of Holocaust-era Nazi propaganda, but in the absolute best way possible.
It’s hard, in this day and age, to find music that feels compelling, but here it is, whether you like it or not. What Harris has achieved is a mastery of making music that sounds truly affected and eerie, plunging you neck-first into a world that somehow resembles the tape from The Ring, covered in malaise and stoic gloom, and somehow feeling truly, sickeningly sinister. This is an end of the emotional spectrum that has, until the introduction of Harris in the music community, been completely untouched, for fear of getting it completely wrong. And yet, somehow, she manages to inject every single ounce of humanity possible into the sound of these two records. The two albums should be taken as one piece, rather than as songs, because really, it’s entirely possible that the only reason these ghosts have names is because it would get really confusing to name every song “[Untitled].”
This is really the problem with actually talking about Harris’ music: each and every song is merely a formless black shadow that looms just out of your eyesight, rather than a cohesive song with cohesive sections, with cohesive lyrics and themes. The end result is truly gorgeous, but unless you sit for an entire day and listen to nothing but these records, or are predestined to be a pretentious shithead, you aren’t going to be able to easily pick themes out of the works here. What you can pick out, though, is the hint that there is something in the underbelly of the silent storm brewing underneath A I A, and if you chose to sit for a day and listen to only this, you could find something there. There are musicians who deal with unfinished thoughts rather than fully-formed pieces, but the problem is, when most of those musicians make this kind of music, they fall short. There’s somehow, something in the DNA of Liz Harris that enables her to make this music, and like an ethereal Coca-Cola, even if you had the recipe, you still could not actually make it yourself. This may, in fact, be the most uplifting thing about her work.
If you made it this far, you may have noticed that I spend most of it talking about the sound Liz Harris makes, rather than the album she made. And you’d be right, I did focus on the big picture instead. But that’s part of the beauty of Grouper: it doesn’t matter what it sounds like to you. All that really, truly matters is that it exists. And if you can’t handle what you unearth if you sink your teeth into Grouper, you cannot be blamed.