Grouper review – haunting experimentalism from a sonic guru

St John’s Church, London
Moving from the nakedly confessional to the genuinely unsettling, Liz Harris delivers a set that transports the crowd

Over nine albums and a career that spans a decade, Grouper (AKA Liz Harris) has blurred the line between performer and listener. Her skeletal and revelatory songs use analogue recording equipment as their conduit for communication, resulting in an impressive sense of intimacy.

Tonight’s set draws heavily from Ruins, her confessional masterpiece from 2014. Recorded in 2011 at an artists’ retreat in Portugal in the wake of a breakup, the result was so exposing that Harris kept it in the can for three years, sarcastically dismissing it as her “adult contemporary” album. For tonight’s show, she’s transposed the bare piano pieces into reverb-heavy electric guitar that opens out the album’s intimate feel and gives the songs a chance to playfully crawl about. Holding sounds incandescent, recalling the experimentalism of Michigan band His Name Is Alive, whereas on the haunting Clearing, the song’s melancholic missives (“It’s funny when you fuck up, no one really has to care …”) feel a little bit less heartbreaking when you twig that the riff is essentially a slowed-down version of the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979. The new song California, meanwhile, is genuinely unsettling, full of shamanic energy and death-rattle rhythms.

Harris remains an enigmatic figure. Sitting crossed-legged and shoe-free on the floor, she’s surrounded by a musical sandbox of pedals and cassette players, a sonic guru stoically commanding the assembled masses. With her long, Joan Baezesque hair partially obscuring her face, she is able to disappear behind the sonic curtain of her songs. As the 10 minutes-plus of closer Made of Air unfold, something similar happens to the crowd, who are transported to something between a mass meditation and a seance.


Priya Elan

The GuardianTramp

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