Thursday, 18 October 2012

Hallo Halloween - Album Recommendation 2

Grouper - A. I. A. (Alien Observer / Dream Loss) (2011, Kranky)

Listening to A. I. A, the double album released by Liz Harris’ project Grouper in 2011, there’s a lot about it that brings to my mind a whole host of Halloween-related themes: the supernatural and unknown, the subconscious and the world of dreams, and the question of what exists in outer space, amongst a bunch of others.

This can be seen and heard in the most minute details of the album’s two parts (Alien Observer and Dream Loss): the indecipherable reverb-drenched vocals that are commonplace to much ‘shoegaze’ / ‘dream pop’ here are used to create the sense of a lonesome ghostly cooing, which is emphasised by the often minimal instrumental accompaniment of guitar and organ; and the weathered, lo-fi sound that is Harris’ calling card here creates the sense that you’re listening to a newly-discovered and previously forgotten artefact in a way that can be said to place the album in a canon of works that build mystery and raise questions around this conceit – a canon that spans from gothic literary works like The Castle of Otranto and Dracula to modern horror film franchises like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.

As well as these connections to ghost stories and to the gothic, we can also draw parallels with science-fiction – through allusions to the cosmic and outer space in track titles like Alien Observer and Moon is Sharp, and through the fact that Harris has stated her admiration for science-fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Stanislaw Lem in interviews. What A. I. A. most brings to mind, in these terms, though is the work of H. P. Lovecraft, whose works like the 1927 short story ‘The Colour Out Of Space’ were sometimes described as “cosmic horror”, due to how they often applied tropes like gothic mystery and the fear of the unknown to the unknowable expanse of outer space and to the extraterrestrial beings existing within that expanse. What makes Liz Harris’ music here seem so Lovecraftian is how the haziness and ghostliness of her sound make her allusions to space seem to view it similarly as a space that is eerily vast and unknowable – incidentally juxtaposing the relative ‘smallness’ of Grouper’s lo-fi sound in a way that’s sort of reminiscent of how Lovecraft’s protagonists tend to be totally dwarfed by the unimaginable things occurring around them.

And last but not least, there are also very Halloween-relevant parallels to be drawn with your whole family’s favourite post-modern surrealist film director, David Lynch. For example, the video for Alien Observer (directed by Hamish Parkinson), brings to mind Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks in how the video and that series both share a fascination with the darkness and mystery within natural space of the woods*. Of course, it goes without saying as well that Harris has proven herself to be highly capable of constructing atmosphere in a way that brings to mind the work of Lynch’s frequent musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (in this respect, it’s probably no coincidence that Come Softly sounds remarkably similar to the theme tune to Twin Peaks), to the point that it wouldn’t take a huge imaginative leap to imagine Liz Harris’s darkly dreamlike music filling the hyperreal space of Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio**. 

(courtesy of DeezCowz)
* This is not the only reason. If you watch it, you'll see that it's as Lynchian as Jack Nance having a backwards conversation with a weird-looking rabbit voiced by Naomi Watts to the accompaniment of some seriously ominous jazz drums.
** And, on a similar (i.e. the exact same) note -- the bit at 11 seconds into the Inland Empire trailer is Grouper-y as hell (

A couple of other recommendations...

Mirrorring - Fell Sound

(courtesy of TheNenad2)

Grouper's collaboration with Jesy Fortino (a.k.a. Tiny Vipers) - Mirrorring's Foreign Body - is definitely worth a listen for more of this sort of sound (I reviewed it here -- The opening track to the album is similarly nocturnal and spacey, with Fortino's acoustic guitar adding a more pastoral, earthy edge that works perfectly with the contrasting otherworldliness of the ambient drones.

Slowdive - Cello

(courtesy of Lacunan87)

From Slowdive's criminally underrated third and final album, 1995's Pygmalion, I wouldn't be surprised if this track influenced Grouper in some way. The most hauntingly minimal track on what is generally quite a hauntingly minimal album, this track makes the most of out of the melancholy double-act of cello and Rachel Goswell's wordless vocals.

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