User’s Manual #2: Grouper

Welcome to User’s Manual – a segment that helps listeners find a suitable entry point within an unfamiliar artist’s discography, or to reinvigorate someone’s interest in a certain artist by breaking down their work to a molecular level, allowing the listener to then piece back together the elements that helped them fall in love with the artist in the first place.

For the second edition of User’s Manual, we’re focusing on an artist that I’ve been deeply enamored with since midway through college: Grouper! Grouper is the main musical alias of Portland, OR’s Liz Harris, who has been releasing music since 2005. She specializes in cosmically layered ambient drone, primarily with her own vocals and other field recordings, along with spare folk elements like acoustic + electric guitar or piano + keys thrown in. Her music is most times formless, allowing waves of sound to breathe and exist in a certain space she’s crafted for each song, helping the listener conjure up visuals or meaning behind the largely ambiguous lyrics and melodies Harris creates. There is a certain quality, a humidity in the air, that always permeates through Grouper releases. I don’t know exactly what it is or how she does it, but the familiarity of the atmosphere is not repetitive, only reassuring. It’s such a simple combination every time, but it succeeds.

The way she produces and arranges her music creates some kind of aural vortex around the listener in a way that’s totally overwhelming but also comforting. I know that being in a real life vortex is no joke, but something about existing in a chaotic din of grayscale noise with disembodied, smeared vocals stretching around you has a calming effect, much like a security blanket during a storm, or a warm bath after coming in from the cold. But getting back to the open-endedness: if you find more comfort in imagining yourself lost in a snowstorm, wandering listlessly in a field with no signs of life except for a lone lantern that doesn’t seem to be getting any closer – her music can satisfy that need as well. It’s at both times heavenly and foreboding depending on your mood. I wouldn’t say her entire discography follows these rules, with lots of lo-fi early material going for a more cathartic, noisy and chaotic approach, but her later works are up for interpretation in this framework. On the baseline, though, it feels incredibly human and natural, organic and grown straight from an emotive spirit.

Now that we have an idea of what we’re getting into here, I’m going to chronologically break down Harris’ discography. First with her main releases as Grouper, then moving onto the various splits, side projects and alter-aliases, then finally onto some rogue singles that I’d kick myself for not including. After getting a good idea on what everything in the discography sounds like (for the most part), I go into certain specific sounds or emotions for each release with bite-size summaries in the “I’m Looking For…” section. Lastly, I try my best at a flowchart to help you with your musical journey through Grouper’s vast catalog of releases, choosing two albums that can be your potential liftoff points that can take you into markedly different territories. Harris has accumulated something resembling a devoted cult around all her material (I feel lucky to count myself as a member), so I hope I don’t peeve any Grouper-heads with my analysis. In the end though, this is about discovery. There’s a lot to choose from here, so I hope you do end up finding something you love. And Liz if you somehow end up reading this: thank you for releasing your art to the wild, it has helped a lot of people out.

MAIN DISCOGRAPHY:

  • Grouper (2005)
    Ultra-distorted ambient drone. Multiple tracks have sections with peaking audio, further obscuring the intricate folds of the instrumentals. Harris’ voice is pure and soothing for the most part, occasionally cutting through or co-existing with the din. It’s like peering outside during an intense thunderstorm to see a pristine meadow in the distance, untouched by the angry clouds above.
  • Way Their Crept (2005)
    Murky drones of voice and distorted piano. Some of the same songs featured on Grouper, just a lot more mellowed out. Think a Julianna Barwick album, with plumes of echoing voice, but quite a bit fuzzier and dissonant.
  • Wide (2006)
    Much like Way Their Crept, only with additional electric guitar, adding another layer of distorted noise to the mix. Bits of higher-fidelity recording popping up, like the piano on “Giving It To You”. Still very murky and mysterious.
  • Cover the Windows and the Walls (2007)
    A return to the more wall of sound drone, but much more developed and nuanced. Sonically similar to Grouper but not as intense. She still performs the title track!
  • Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008)
    Disintegrating, gorgeous dream folk (if that’s an enticing genre for you). With this album, Grouper defined her own sound and made it nearly impossible to put one solid label upon her music. Not dream folk, not drone folk, not ambient pop. It’s just Grouper – that’s all you need to say. After predominantly being obscured by sonic interference, Harris emerges from the cloud with tender vocals to go alongside slow, wafting instrumentals that range from currents of building noise to straightforward acoustic guitar tunes. The guitars sound like they’re drifting away like dandelion spores, or like a marsh of beach reeds undulating in the ocean breeze. Grouper’s voice is not at the total front end of the mix like a pop singer, but the balance between every element is perfect. The keys, the guitar, the voice, the effects – everything is in its right place sonically and arrangement-wise. Monumental record right here.
  • A | A: Alien Observer (2011)
    The crown jewel of Grouper’s ambient records. Takes the approach of her first four records, but allows her voice to come forward like on Dead Deer. This gorgeous balance of hazy textures and clean vocals, along with a high-fidelity approach overall leads to some of Grouper’s best songs like the title track and “Vapor Trails”. This also seems to be the first mostly ambient album where silence and dynamics come into play in a big way, with Harris leaving lots of empty space in between her notes instead of flooding it all with sheets of noise.
  • A | A: Dream Loss (2011)
    The companion to Alien Observer. Definitely more distorted and ambiguous than the former, but no less beautiful. The songs are more similar to her pre-Deer material sonically, but with like Observer, with more focus on dynamics and balance. “I Saw A Ray” is a good example of a destructive, cleansing drone that sounds rough, but doesn’t drown out the other beautiful components of the song along with it.
  • Violet Replacement Pt. 1 (2012)
    One long piece called “Rolling Gate”. Nearly 37 minutes of a continuous drone, erring towards the side of ominous rather than calming or even ambiguous. Layers of disembodied voice merge together and a slowed down melody is performed overhead. It sounds like you’ve been submerged in a water tank with an William Basinski-like piece is being performed outside. Distant, like in a dream. The further you go into the piece, the further you are consumed by noise, making for a cacophonous finish.
  • Violet Replacement Pt. 2 (2012)
    A 51-minute piece called “Sleep”. Like Pt. 1, it feels like it exists in a dream, but instead of being consumed by the dream you are released by it. By the end you disembark from a decompressed voyage through space and time, slowly coming to as the fabricated textures slowly filter away, becoming gently caressed by the sounds of heavy rain on the window next to you and fragments of the dream linger within your subconscious.
  • The Man Who Died In His Boat (2013)
    Returning to the hazy folk on Dead Deer, while also embracing the foggy ambient of the A|A releases. There are more straightforward, confident tracks here with just guitar and voice and less emphasis on murky distortion or feedback. However tracks like “Being Her Shadow” “STS” and “Difference (Voices)” could have felt at home in the A | A universe. “Living Room” is either my #1 or #2 Grouper song, by the way!
  • Ruins (2014)
    The most direct Grouper album and in my opinion the most cleansing and healing of her records. Like having a presence accompanying you in an isolated hour. Less of a focus on overwhelming noise, but more on the interplay between piano, lullaby-like vocal melodies and silence. You can almost feel the rooms she recorded these songs in the way the sound of the piano reverberates through the album. Half the songs are purely instrumental, splitting the shine between Harris’ lyrics and vocals and the grace of her piano playing and compositional skills. The final track “Made of Air” is a return to the ambiguous fog similar to Violet Replacement. “Lighthouse” reminds me of my childhood home with its chirping frogs in the background – a staple summer memory.
  • Grid Of Points (2018)
    Another spare yet evocative collection of voice + piano + field recordings. Where Harris’ voice was at the center stage of her compositions on Ruins, she blends in more with her surroundings on Grid Of Points, with layers upon layers of her own voice are swirled in with a cloudy piano, leading to a misty, coordinated meditation.

Read more for Side Projects + discography flowchart!

SIDE PROJECTS/ SPLITS / OTHER ALIASES:

  • Grouper vs. Xiu Xiu – Creepshow (2006)
    The upsetting noise of Xiu Xiu meets its match. Gauzy bands of harmonious noise becoming detuned, demented out of tune pianos, mysterious tempo-free percussion, a hodgepodge of instruments being spun around in a tornado. For the real freaks.
  • Inca Ore / Grouper – Split (2007)
    Put out one year before Dead Deer and featuring Grouper’s most forward vocals out at that point. Low-lit, but light tunes consisting of keyboard and voice. Sang for the 2am moon. Inca Ore’s side is pretty experimental singer/songwriter drone & noise, with blown out field recordings and vocal samples.
  • Roy Montgomery / Grouper – Split (2009)
    Most similar to Alien Observer in terms of timbre and instrumentation, like a continuation of “Come Softly”. Each track flows into the next, and the project is framed around two similar sounding field recordings, almost as if you fall asleep on the bus or train, encounter these sounds in a dream, then slowly return to the waking world with these warm feelings in your head. Roy Montgomery’s side is a long, meditative guitar piece that reminded me of Laraaji’s Ambient 3 in terms of rhythm and timbre. Overall a pretty feel-good combo, a rare feat in her discog.
  • Visitor – Visitor EP (2011)
    A collaboration with Ilyas Ahmed. Giving an electric guitar more of a voice rather than having it mixed into the wash of sound. It’s still pretty subdued, but in this case you can actually hear many of the (slowly) moving parts clicking together. “The Edges” features Harris’ vocals, while “Skin Warmth” features Ahmed on lead vocals.
  • Mirrorring – Foreign Body (2012)
    A collaboration with Tiny Vipers. “Drone folk” is a term I just came up with? Trading off lead vocals between each other, songs drift along without being too heavy, save for “Mine”. A wisp guiding you down a dark road. Features two of the best songs in her discog, “Fell Sound” and “Drowning In The Call”. Temperate waves wash upon you.
  • Raum – Event of Your Leaving (2013)
    A collaboration with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Such a perfect pairing. Cantu-Ledesma is known for totally blown out, bright passages of sweet, cacophonous ambient noise. Mix that together with Grouper’s dreamy vocals and you’ve got a borderline religious experience on your hands. At the same time prickly and touching, with blissful harmonies coming together amongst ominous, distant thunder and cathartic bursts of distortion. My favorite record from her collabs.
  • Slow Walkers – Slow Walkers (2013)
    A collaboration with Lawrence English. Perhaps the least ambiguous release in her discography. It’s pretty dreary, discordant drone, with plenty of chilling textures and unnerving harmonies. Stabs of smeared out piano shot through a hurricane of noise. Death rumbles from beyond the window. The Earth is slowly caving in on itself.
  • Helen – The Original Faces (2015)
    A garage rock/shoegaze project with a few other musicians, most notably Eternal Tapestry. Disorienting to have upbeat rock instrumentals led by the familiar dreamy Grouper vocals. ALMOST like a parody of the surfy bands that got popular at the end of the 00s/beginning of the 10s. It still rocks though. At times the cognitive dissonance between the two styles is a bit too much, but on some tracks it works perfectly, resulting in a dreamy, summery tune. Like a beach engulfed in fog, or an especially hazy, humid day at low tide.
  • Nivhek – After Its Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House (2019)
    Technically a pure Liz Harris album, but released under a different alias. Possibly the most experimental release in her discog. Long form songs with mallet percussion (bells, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, etc) taking the lead voice. It’s refreshing to hear this musical adventurousness in Harris’ music, incorporating a new timbre into her subtle style. Still plenty of field recordings and layers of voice interspersed throughout, but the hypnotic chiming bells are the stars here.

SINGLES THAT I’D KICK MYSELF FOR NEGLECTING:

  • Water People (2011)
    “Water People” is one of my favorite Grouper songs, with a mix-forward, melancholy electric guitar line and very few effects on Grouper’s vocals. I’ve found that many of her songs where her personality and artistry is at the forefront and not completely shrouded in fog are some of my favorites. The b-side “Moving Machine” is like the slowed down version of “Water People”, with a submerged guitar and chiming keys. Two essential songs to add to any Grouper fan playlist.
  • Paradise Valley (2016)
    “Headache” is very likely my all-time favorite Grouper song. To know that this rogue single is my favorite song of hers should tell you all you need to know. You’ve read this far into the post. You can obviously tell I’m a massive fan of her work. B-side “I’m Clean Now” is also nothing to sneeze at. Both are rather straightforward, guitar + voice tunes with melodies and lyrics that just rip my soul out. The vocal melody on “Headache” especially crushes me. As someone who gets frequent headaches, I feel a strange cosmic attachment to this song as well. I will always be looking for a copy of this on vinyl. I was very close when Grouper held a pop-up shop at a great store in NYC called Commend where she was selling rare vinyl, zines, art and clothing. I arrived in the middle of it due to work and had to wait in line to get in the store. The dude in front of me snatched the last Paradise Valley 7-inch they had and I died. I still bought the Roy Montgomery split, but still. My heart hurt. This is quintessential listening.

“I’m Looking For…”
(* = start here in discography)

  • a harsh, exploratory excursion in lo-fi drone. House of Leaves as an album: Grouper
  • a further excursion in ambient drone with choir-like vocal layering: Way Their Crept
  • a darker drone experience with more pronounced organic instrumentation: Wide
  • a deep vortex of sound with church-like acoustics: Cover The Windows…
  • a fully-enveloping dream world of melancholic sound: Dragging A Dead Deer… *
  • an astral transmission of melodies that defy laws of time and space: Alien Observer *
  • a similar experience to Alien but a bit more obscured and cathartic: Dream Loss
  • an disassociating train ride during a snowstorm: Violet Replacement Pt. 1
  • an isolated crevasse with light snow falling upon you: Violet Replacement Pt. 2
  • a clearer split between the strictly ambient & folk tracks: The Man Who Died…
  • a direct Grouper experience. Pure songwriting + piano + real life noises: Ruins
  • a dreamy, spacious experience. Layers of voice wash like waves: Grid Of Points

— you’re in it now dawg! onto the deeper discog —

  • a good scratch to your freaky weirdo pretty noise itch: Creepshow
  • a gurgling swamp of sound in a quiet, secluded forest: Inca Ore Split
  • a pleasant, summer nap dream with the windows open: Roy Montgomery Split
  • a sonic equivalency to a lonely person and their final lit candle of winter: Visitor EP
  • a slow motion dance recital in the rain: Water People
  • a type of bridge that connects the worlds of Dead Deer Alien Observer: Mirrorring
  • a gorgeous ambient drone record that sounds like an abandoned space station: Raum
  • an ambient drone experience that makes you think about Earth dying: Slow Walkers
  • a fuzzed out, beachy garage rock record with an angel of death serenading you: Helen
  • a sunrise to fall asleep to after battling inner demons all night: Paradise Valley
  • a meditative, mesmerizing journey through your inner conscience: Nivhek

ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS:

STARTING WITH DRAGGING A DEAD DEER UP A HILL – FOLK SIDE:
u ok? you need 15 more minutes? don’t worry about it. lmk when you’re ready.
Are you looking for more of that as a whole? Go to The Man Who Died In His Boat, then Mirrorring, then Ruins, then Grid of Points. The most common path here.
You digging the clear guitar songs? Go to Paradise Valley and Water People.
You digging the guitar but you want it sadder? Go to Visitor EP.
Not gelling with the guitar? Prefer a piano? Go to Ruins.
Did you love Ruins? Go to Grid of Points!
You liked the piano but want it a little mushier? Go to Inca Ore split.
You wanna go into guitar + murky noise? Go to Mirrorring.
Was “Silent From Above” your favorite on Mirrorring? Go listen to Tiny Vipers!
Was “Drowning In The Call” your jam on Mirrorring? Go to Paradise Valley.
Wait a second. Have you listened to Paradise Valley yet? Do not pass go if not.
Ok back to biz. Was “Disengaged” your fav on Deer? Go to Alien Observer.
Was the title track your favorite song? Go to Dream Loss.
Was “Wind and Snow” your favorite song? Listen to this Evian Christ song.
Was “Invisible” your favorite song? Going to Ruins next might make sense, but not before The Man Who Died In His Boat.
Was “Tidal Wave” your favorite song? Go to Wide.
Was “Vanishing Point” your fav on Boat?? Uhh go to Nivhek??
Was “Living Room” your fav on Boat? You clearly have a high intellect. You’ll like Water People and Paradise Valley if you still haven’t gotten there yet.
Do you hate quiet music? First, wow I can’t believe you listened to so much Grouper. Second, listen to Helen.
Oh you want quieter or more ambiguous? Go to the next section if you haven’t!

STARTING WITH ALIEN OBSERVER – AMBIENT SIDE:
So have you found peace // your place in the universe? hell yeah.
Do you want more of that great keyboard sound? Go to Roy Montgomery split.
More?? I feel you. Go to Inca Ore split.
Looking for clearer vocals & lyrics? DON’T listen to Cocteau Twins. But go to Dead Deer or Paradise Valley. Actually if you haven’t ever listened to Cocteau Twins, c’mon.
Looking for something a little darker? Go to Alien Observer‘s twin, Dream Loss.
Darker than Dream Loss? Ah yes, the slippery slope. Go to Cover the Windows, then Wide, then Way Their Crept, then Grouper.
Was “Giving It To You” your favorite on Wide? Go to Ruins, then Grid of Points.
Wait a second, have you ever listened to Julianna Barwick? Change that if not!
Were you looking for more scary, ominous and less lo-fi? Go to Slow Walkers.
Looking for more heavy, well-composed drone? Go listen to Lawrence English!
Or maybe you weren’t looking for something that depressing? Go to Raum.
Was “Blood Moon” your favorite on Raum? Go listen to Jefre Cantu-Ledesma!
Dang were you into that long, ominous drone? Go to Violet Replacement Pt. 1.
Looking for more experimentation & lo-fi drone? Go to Grouper.
Oh so you a freak, huh? Go to Creepshow.
Have you listened to Xiu Xiu before? Buckle up. I ain’t doing one of these for them.
I want to dream but not like that! Scary! Go to Violet Replacement Pt. 2.
Pt. 2 was a nice dream. I want another nice dream: Go to the Roy Montgomery split, ya dingus! I already told you to do that!
Are you looking to dream more? Go to Mirrorring, specifically “Fell Sound”.
Are you looking for more long pieces like Violet Replacement? Go to Nivhek.
I want another 10+ minute track! Ok chill! Go to “Made of Air” on Ruins.
Wait you hate quiet music? First, wow I can’t believe I got you to listen to so much Grouper. Bless your heart. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Second, listen to Helen.
You didn’t like Helen? How? I already put in all this work to make one of these same features for Beck. He’s loud, you can listen to him!
Quieter than Beck? Uhhh did you try Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill yet?
Oh you already tried that and it didn’t work? Well I just don’t know what to do for you buddy. Keep reading my blog and you’ll find something hopefully. You better not say anything else.
…one more thing? Oh you thought “Headache” was actually great? Ok you’re fine.

About Very Warm

Usually cool dude stuff.
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1 Response to User’s Manual #2: Grouper

  1. Pingback: 2019 Retrospective – 100 Songs + Listening Stats | Warm Visions

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