The haunting sound of Groeni is gaining attention in Europe

by James Belfield / 05 April, 2018
Groeni: high, haunting vocals on top of their own samples and loops and cut-up feedback from an electric guitar.

Groeni: high, haunting vocals on top of their own samples and loops and cut-up feedback from an electric guitar.

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Wellington electronic outfit Groeni's anxiety-laden music evokes easy comparisons with Radiohead.

Three really is the magic number for Groeni. The trio of James Paul, Mike Isaacs and Al Green have grown from being, as Paul puts it, “each other’s best friends” at music school, via an experimental EP (“to see how we might work together”) and a sandwich bar (Paul and Green also run Good Boy Food + Drink in Newtown) into a band whose skittery, anxiety-laden music evokes easy comparisons with Radiohead.

Groeni emerged from what was originally Green’s solo project, and their latest album, Nihx, is garnering a good deal of attention in the UK even before its March 31 release.

The band’s creativity relies on a democratic process to set the rules around which they can turn basic concepts into deeply engaging, highly layered and emotional songs.

“Very rarely will any tension happen, and if it does, then democracy wins through in the end,” says Paul. “And spending a lot of time on the last record, Hinde, working through ideas about anxiety and depression has meant we can be very open with one another, so that even if there’s a little bickering, it never really turns serious.”

Both Paul’s and Green’s own mental health battles played out on 2016’s Hinde, with Green personifying depression as a stomping giant on a track like Hedre, and even though Paul says there may still be underlying elements of those themes running though Nihx “because it’s something we deal with on a day-to-day basis”, the new offering has a different grounding.

The title is a misspelling of Nyx, the Greek goddess of night – a makeup company had already walked off with the correct spelling. Largely concerned with the polarity between light and dark, the album runs through nine moody tracks bookended by opener Unrest with its refrain of “only in the dark” and the closing Rest with its gentle crescendo of dark feedback.

But all metaphorical intent aside, the beauty of Nihx – and of Groeni – lies in Green’s high, haunting vocals and in the band’s insistence on creating their own samples and loops from Isaacs’ ever-expanding pile of analogue synthesisers and a lot of cut-up feedback sounds from an electric guitar.

“Right at the start, we made it a rule that we make all our own sounds – especially for the drums. And that gave us a nice restriction and a unique sonic palette to make the record,” says Paul.

In the end, a 48-hour “musical chairs with synths” session at the home of Isaacs’ girlfriend’s father – he just happens to be composer and NZSO chief executive Christopher Blake – gave them “hours and hours” of sounds they could scour through to create the rather filmic soundscapes that are the hallmark of Nihx.

Because the result is an unashamedly Radiohead-esque album – Paul readily admits to the indie giants being his favourite band and reckons it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to be “in the top three” for his other bandmates – and they’ve gone back to German-based label Project Mooncircle, it’s possibly no surprise that a lot of the attention for Nihx has come so far in Europe, including a plug on the BBC from Tom “son-of-John-Peel” Ravenscroft.

Whether that translates into a Northern Hemisphere tour is yet to be decided – after all, there’s the matter of a sandwich bar to mind. But in New Zealand, there’s talk of backing up their Space Place performance at Wellington’s Carter Observatory with a series of gigs at other planetariums in Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch.

Well, that’s Paul’s “dream” – presumably the three of them will still have to vote on it.

NIHX, Groeni (Project Mooncircle)

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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