Humans are at their lowest distinction when furthest away. From great heights, we kill, eat, breed, and die, like the ants we resemble. From still further, it’s all color wheels and nebular lushness; pretty, but lacking a finer drama. Most music of a shoegaze, dream pop bent is content to orbit without getting closer. But Grouper’s Liz Harris is something else entirely.
Alien Observer and Dream Loss are albums easy to listen to but difficult to be equal to. There’s a z-axis to her music that swells and fades apart from volume and texture, which some critics paw at when they call her work “spiritual,” but which could easily be the enduring cosmic mystery of golden age science fiction (considering the “I Want to Believe” cover art of Alien Observer). It’s shadowy territory because at her most intelligible she’s Beach House, but at her outer limits we don’t yet, and may never, have a vocabulary for what she’s doing.
Tracks like “Vapor Trails” build with impossible patience, more a phase change than a crescendo, as if nurturing rudimentary forms of life. But where Alien Observer coos benignly, Dream Loss is more sinister and terrestrial. “I Saw a Ray” rides a thermal of early My Bloody Valentine distortion higher than it is safe to go. Warm and natal melodies which would grow true on the previous album here have dissonant bonsai gnarls.
Both these albums put me in mind of guitar ronin James Blackshaw, whose album The Cloud of Unknowing takes its name from a work of Christian mysticism expressing god as he who can be loved but not thought. It’s negative theology, the attempt to locate the spirit world in coordinate space by demarcating the region thought can’t penetrate, a region where unknowing is not the same as ignorance.
Grouper – Vapor Trails
James Blackshaw – Cross