I first discovered the music of Grouper in the final days of 2008, when her album Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill made a last minute rush up my list of favourite albums of that year. I can’t remember if I read somewhere or just thought at the time that her music sounds like a lost child singing from the bottom of very deep, dark well, but that’s an image that’s always stuck with me. Grouper’s is a sombre, lonely sound, in which Liz Harris’s heavily treated vocals are folded into waves of dankly glistening drones that seem to carry with them something of the moisture of a Pacific Northwest forest floor.
From there, I followed her prolific career forwards – to 2014’s plangent gem Ruins and the surprise 7-inch ‘Paradise Valley’ that she put out on winter solstice last year – but (I realise now) I was negligent in not also tracing it backwards. Sometime towards the end of last year, though, spurred on by that 7-inch, I decided to try out her early album, Way Their Crept, from 2005, and its follow-up, Wide, from 2006.
Neither of these records disappointed. While it’s easy to see why Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill became her breakthrough – it having at least some tracks that veer close to more traditional songcraft, however moss-covered and water-logged they may be – these more shapeless, more inscrutable initial recordings nonetheless reveal Grouper’s dreamily appealing aesthetic already fully accomplished.
The cover of Way Their Crept helpfully depicts multiply exposed images of the denuded branches of a thorny tree against a blanched sky – a witchy, haunted, monochromatic design that fits this eerie music perfectly. Were Grouper not by now close to a celebrity in the alternative/fringe experimental music scenes, you might be tempted to imagine that this record was the product of some woodland-dwelling outsider musician, toying with tape loops, vocal effects and sustain pedals to ease the passage of a solitary existence.
Issued on CD-R only, until it was picked up for reissue by Type Records in 2007, the music is wreathed in shadow and cobweb, sometimes approaching a sepulchral form of dub in its reverberating psychedelics (most especially on the track ‘Black Out’). It’s bewitching stuff, with Harris’s wordless lyrics repeating into infinity like lonesome hymns sung in a cavern.
While very different in its approach, Grouper’s music has something in common with other Pacific Northwest favourites of mine, from Mount Eerie to Sunn O)))): an elemental quality that makes the music feel steeped in weather and wildness. But while there’s wind and turbulence with those two bands, in Grouper records like Way Their Crept I hear only utter stillness. The music sounds godforsaken and sad, to be sure, but seems to emanate from a safe space, encircled by echo and nightfall.