Grouper Live @ EartH (Late Show), 29/10/2018

Almost 7 years ago I saw Liz live back in my home city as part of her Violet Replacement tour. It was a simpler time in so many ways: a 20 minute bus journey for me, an intimate little venue for her, and 45 minutes of drone for everyone involved. At the time I was a bit disappointed, because AIA had recently been released and I had hoped that I would get to hear some of those amazing pieces, but looking back on it now, Liz’s enchanting and hypnotic set with its consumptive drones and mesmerising visuals had a huge influence on me and encouraged me to explore the Drone path a lot more.

Seeing her again at EartH couldn’t have been a more different experience: 2 hours of travel on trains and tubes to get to the dilapidated old theatre packed full of trendy London arts types (as opposed to the slightly fewer in number and vaguely more self-aware Midlands art types). And then there was me, 6 1/2 years older: to list the changes here would take far too long.

The setting, the crowd, Liz: it was almost a paradox in terms. When the lights went down and she came on stage she spent a few moments setting up, adjusting dials and tapes and lyric sheets. In the silence the number of cans being cracked was almost comical against the patient reverence of the crowd waiting for her to begin. I don’t care about alcohol being drunk at these things, I’m a fan of the stuff personally, but in some of the quieter moments between pieces seeing dozens of people get up at a time to go to the toilet or to the bar was jarring, disheartening. It was performance becoming spectacle, it felt wrong.

And yet despite the hundreds in the room there was an intimacy to it. At times Liz would sing into indistinctness, or instrumentation would dampen to a softness that made you lean in and strain towards it, as though on that big stage huddled behind the piano and guitar and tapes she was an emotional sink. If you’ve ever listened to Grouper’s work you’ll know what I mean even between your headphones, of this feeling of hollowness and introversion whispered, drawing you in closer to fill some void. It was like space was shortening, this melancholic gravity reducing distance both physical and mental.

I could identify a few of the pieces, though I don’t think it matters all too much when it comes to the how of the atmosphere. There was definitely a few from Grid of Points, notably “Parking Lot” and the calamitous steam rolling closer of “Breathing”, whose obliterating train samples broke the gauzy sustained tension of the room like a nuclear bomb. Bass shook the walls, a heavy drumming in the chest so consuming that it almost felt as though it was an internal force as much as an external one, of bursting hearts and bleeding brains.

For me, it was all over as soon as it began. 6 1/2 years ago I went to see Liz to hear “Alien Observer” and yesterday I had that wish fulfilled. Hearing her fingers flow over those familiar keys, of her voice singing lightly, breathily into the mic was like hearing my soul crack.

Gonna take a spaceship

Fly back to the stars

Alien observer, in a world that isn’t mine

It seemed to cycle endlessly, her piano arpeggios spilling out into the room alongside the pre-recorded guitar warpings for an impossibly long time, a sense of self disappearing into her evocations before the music began to slew and smear. Density betrayed that track’s true feeling of isolation and disconnection, Liz shifting tones into heady pulses of noisy damage that tore angrily away at the preceding softness.

And before I knew it it was gone and I was unplugged, back to the clattering tubes and train seats under fluorescent lights for the trip home. I was the alien observer, taking the spaceships back to my world again, out back to the familiar and the safe. But I left a part of me behind in that auditorium last night, and I think I’m okay with that.