Like Laurel Halo‘s other releases, Quarantine packs together pieces that seem like framings of sound with very distinct moods that don’t resolve easily into the usual emotional suspects. They can be unnerving and beautiful, and sometimes they are both. “Head,” a highlight from her Hour Logic EP, has a futuristic edge to it, whirring parts and white noise, a driving beat that takes you along an unsteady line between paranoia and paradise. I get the feeling I end up somewhere different each time I pass through it. It doesn’t play by any Euclidean rules of space. It’s some fringe form of mind-altering techno made of infinite gradations of gray. It’s wonderful and slightly frightening. “Metal Confection,” from her King Felix EP, on the other hand, is light and Technicolor, widescreen pop that teeters on the edge of euphoria and melancholy, as if there were only the slightest border between the two.
The songs on Quarantine, and they are almost all songs this time around, sometimes verge on similar territory, like the floating, ambient closer, “Light and Space,” which Halo seems to have tried to fill with just those things. I’m particularly partial to the shading of a sound very close to Jon Hassel’s aquatic trumpet tones, which shiver in from the depths here and there. “Words are just words, words are just words that you soon forget,” Halo sings, a fitting mantra for her music, which constantly buries the words that float over it in a menagerie of prickly and warm sensation, dark dream images and tropically colored reveries.
Her decision to leave her voice alone on the record is laudable, if only because it makes the work stand out not only from her own previous output, but also from other producers of the kind of synthetic music that carries the machine world into human territory, and vice versa. But there is definitely a perceptible space at work between vocals and music at times, and whether that works or not may well be up to the listener. Myself, I enjoy it for the most part, especially on “Thaw,” a song that pulls together out of drones and pulses into something sedately disjointed, Halo’s voice slightly droning itself, drawn out at times, stretching vowels, making a little space of wonderment amid the tripping arpeggios that hinge the sounds, textural and shrill, that appear and disappear together.
Bass and noise often have lives of their own here, as is often the case in Halo’s work, operating as presences that go beyond rhythm and background, that add to the general depth and color of each track, reshaping the tone of pieces in sudden bursts. This is the case even on one of the album’s most diaphanous songs, “Years,” on which Halo leaves her voice most bare. It is one of the most meditative pieces on the record, and as her voice teetering on the edge of its own range, it adds to a fragility, or transience, that the music seems to explore in a different way with its rippling melodies.
There is a sorrow at work in “Years,” that is at work on much of Quarantine, a sorrow cooled in a recollection that verges on a vision that is redemptive, becoming so by being beyond the way we see in everyday life. I wasn’t even sure I liked it, actually, but in the shaky fit of voice and music something gets jarred loose. It often feels like Halo is pulling images from her own past, and even if that is an imagined or fabricated past, the reiteration of these scenes gives them a new flesh in the ambiguous, swirling and metamorphosing shapes that she favors in her music. There is always something that gets past you when listening, just as there is always something in an experience that you miss but which may well end up being the kernel from which any image at all through which you can grasp that moment must grow out of.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Slow Architecture
Julia Holter – Tragedy
Stream: Laurel Halo – “Thaw”