Last year’s Ruins was startlingly direct and intimate. Typically, there’s an obliqueness to Grouper’s work – a gauze of hazy ambience, reverb and overdub, obscuring any core at the centre of her pieces. Ruins, with pretty much just piano and voice, threw her lyrics and voice into sharp relief, creating a record of painfully sad intimacy.
There’s a stark contrast between the openness of her last record, and the withdrawn performance of tonight. It’s as if she’s uncomfortable bringing this material to a communal setting. She sits out of eyeshot of the vast majority of the seated audience (it’s fun to see the occasional person fleetingly bob up to check that she is actually there), leaving the main visual as the colossal projections of abstract imagery, awkwardly splayed across the stained glass window and altar of the church.
She is also astonishingly quiet. I don’t mean this as a sloppy description for intricate, or delicate, or sparsely textured. I mean she is literally very quiet; to the point of near inaudibility at points. The effect – taken with the mesmeric visuals – cleverly draws you more and more closely into the sound; calling on complete silence from the audience, and a close focus on the texture of the deceptively simple pieces.
Coughing and the clinking of glasses peal out like thunder and lightning. It’s a strangely mindful and meditative live music experience.
The music itself is mainly more in the vain of the fuller, hazier textures of landmark LP “Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill”, with most of the pieces even more wilfully opaque and distant than they are on record. Album highlight “Clearing” from Ruins is reimagined into a beautiful, swampy texture, with its vocal take all but obliterated – barely above a whisper – battling against a mere breeze of a texture (a storm by comparison). In all, it’s barely recognisable, and utterly gorgeous.
Of course, nobody was popping along to the Grouper show for a couple of tins and the choons. Nonetheless, you could empathise with someone who felt the set could have had a little more underlying substance and muscle. The only real example of that is reserved for the final passage, where an instrumental of drone and ambiance slowly pushes out of the set’s parameters into new bass sounds, and climbing volume. It’s a quietly arresting and cathartic climax and it provides Harris with the escape route she needs to withdraw herself completely.
At every turn, Harris works to make the performance the focal point, rather than the performer. It’s about the sound, not the songs. Subverting the intimacy of her last record, tonight’s set puts the focus on introspection instead – a little slight, perhaps, but certainly absorbing.