Oh, how I’ve been waiting for this. Ever since Liz Harris (aka: Grouper) released her third album, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, I have been utterly transfixed by her and her craft. I had never even heard of her until that release, widely considered her breakthrough. It made waves on the blogosphere, many critics placing it high in their year-end lists. It was an album of acoustic- and keyboard-based drones, with lilting, beautifully layered vocal melodies sung by Harris. It was a superb album. And as I looked back through her older stuff, I was equally impressed. Grouper began with making these uber-dense soundscapes, consisting of what sounded like a hundred layers of affected guitars and keys and vocals, whirling and whirring about like some sort of ghostly message from the past. It was gorgeous stuff. And now, years later, Grouper has finally released her magnum opus.
This is Grouper’s fourth album. This is A I A. It surpasses all her previous releases in nearly every way. It is split up between two separate albums, titled Dream Loss and Alien Observer. They work well apart but the album is best heard in sequence, starting with Dream Loss and ending with Alien Observer, as one whole piece. The music present on these albums is the perfect marriage of all she’s ever done before. It feels like a mesh between her thick, droning early stuff and her more acoustic-based newer stuff. There’s bits and pieces of the past here, and she propels them into the future.
The whole thing begins with Dream Loss. Of the two albums, this is probably the less immediate. It is dense, hazy, noisy in a quiet way, and its songs take their time to wiggle into your brain. The recording seems to be pretty lo-fi, which adds a nice dose of ominous static to much of the record. It starts with “Dragging the Streets,” which has a beautiful keyboard pattern that grounds the fog. Afterwards comes “I Saw a Ray,” perhaps the most impenetrable track here. A grinding static wind blows for the entire duration, almost like some lost signal of guitars that is being played ad infinitum. Harris employs similar tricks she’s always played, layering the sounds just above her voice. Her melodies are key: though buried, they are always audible, and always quite pristine. There are words to these songs; we just cannot hear them.
As the album progresses, we delve deeper into Harris’ musical netherworld. “Soul Eraser” (besides being quite aptly named) progresses along a pretty, reverb-laden piano melody with Harris intoning quite angelically on top. The entirety of A I A is extremely reverb-laden, as is most of Grouper’s work. It does not obscure the beauty, though, like one would think. On “Atone” and this album’s closer “A Lie,” there is a great amount of desolate echo, but we can still hear what is going on. It’s like we’re getting lost in a labyrinth, and have no real desire to find our way out.
The other side, Alien Observer, is slightly more accessible, though fits in sonically with the first part. The first track released from this, the title track, is a beautiful little piece of clarity. This could have fit on Dead Deer without much of an issue. It is a rare moment where the haze lifts ever so slightly, and the result is one of the most beautiful tracks Harris has ever committed to record. “We’re gonna take a spaceship / Fly back to the stars / Alien observer / In a world that isn’t mine,” she sings, in one of the few moments where words are discernible. She has said this album is about otherness, and feeling like an other to oneself. That is definitely traceable: the loneliness and mysteriousness here is palpable, and the sense of being just on the cusp of discovery is always evident.
This side of the album is more typically pretty. “Vapor Trails,” the longest piece, is a beautiful exercise in minimalistic guitar progressions and twinkling keyboards, while the closer “Come Softly” exists solely on a lone, repeating instrumental figure and her most serene vocal. Harris’ vocals on this part are much more observable and easy to follow, always sounding both placid and mournful. But that is true throughout all of A I A. This is an enormous, 80-minute collection of music that is made to get lost in. Grouper has never made a record as wondrous and epic as this, but I hope she does again, and again, and again