As Grouper, Liz Harris always brings purpose and heart to ambient music's diffuseness, but rarely with as much intimacy as she does on Ruins. Where The Man Who Died in His Boat focused on the haunting atmospheres that surrounded its much-lauded companion piece Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, here Harris concentrates on songs. Recorded largely in isolation during a 2011 artist's residency in southwest Portugal, Ruins offers a much more naked version of Grouper's music than ever before, one that makes the most of its natural beauty as well as the environment in which it was recorded. On "Made of Metal," Harris introduces the album's solitary world with an initiation ritual of portentous, heartbeat-like drums and chirping frogs; here and throughout Ruins, she foregoes the heavy processing of her other work for natural echoes and her upright piano's sustain pedal. While she's used piano to lovely effect before, it enhances the album's timeless yet unstudied essence especially well, particularly when serendipitous touches such as the sonar-like microwave beep on "Labyrinth" add to the nearly voyeuristic levels of intimacy. While Ruins' sound is stripped-down, it's filled with emotional magnitudes. Harris' confessions are that much more devastating thanks to their almost overheard nature, and her whispered vocals mean her audience has to listen to them as closely as possible. Her voice melds with the piano when she sings "Can't you see us fading?/Soon there won't be anyone there" on the equally gorgeous and resigned "Clearing," one of her finest songs since Dragging a Dead Deer's "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping." Its sublime beauty is echoed by "Lighthouse," where her subtle harmonies are joined by a chorus of frogs, and "Holding," where a thunderstorm perfectly punctuates the song's emotional climax ("there's nothing left to hold"). As on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, Harris supports these intense moments with gentler instrumentals that feel like reverberations. Most notable among them is "Made of Metal," an 11-minute piece dating back to 2004; though its foggy swells are distinct from the rest of the album's spareness, it closes the album on an introspective, transporting note that suggests time really does heal all wounds. At once soothing and devastating, Ruins suggests Harris' power and versatility are only growing.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares