Laurel Halo’s evolution from pure techno to something more studied and deliberate continues. Her debut, Quarantine was a not-quite-pop record. Fusing IDM and post-jazz electronic stylings with queasy, uncomfortable vocals, it presented human life in an age of increasingly broken digitalism with startling clarity, comfortably earning the accolades that came its way. But her evolution since has been focused increasingly on the timbrel and isolated emotional end of things, with her records Chance of Rain, In Situ and Dust outlining a sense of alienation and ephemerality, impermanence and decay. And as much as these can sometimes be cliched themes in the more art-music end of electronic music production, Laurel always treated her music with a keen ear for small details, textures, transitions, that made sure that even at moments that might sound on paper like a bad MFA novel or piece of poetry, her instrumental electronic music still moved in an organic and evocative way. No small feat.
This mini album, a bit too developed and lengthy to be called an EP but not quite as full a statement as an LP might be, is bracketed by two lengthy ambient tracks and a few brief textural sketches within. Putting the bookends aside, the internal pieces seem to be studies of different textures. The first, “Mercury,” is a piano- and drums-led, tense, post-bop workout, sharp piano chords and rumbling/rattling drums underscored by a low-speed wobble upsetting the balance. The next track, “Quietude,” is likewise built off of piano sounds but instead orders itself around their more percussive traits rather than their crystalline tension-holding capabilities, sounding almost like a well-mic’ed and lightly treated recording of a rattling glass jar of marbles. The third, “The Sick Mind,” focuses on a timbre that feels most like a continuous stream of bubbles emitted from a broken aquarium. The final of the interior tracks, “Supine,” focuses on woody, scratchy textures, feeling like the creaking of boards and cables and the rattle of old books. Compared to these textural explorations, the bookending pieces feel more like proper and full songs, the title track opener being organized around a core of organic sound while the closer “Nahbarkeit” focuses likewise on synthetic sound.
What remains constant over this mini-record is a sense of anguish and interior longing, whether rendered purely physical (creaking, rattling, breaking) or abstract (synthesizer patch, yawning cello bow). While this record feels less like a coherent and fully-formed thought like her other records, albums that carefully balance their overall continuous architecture, smaller song-forms, and moment-to-moment tunefulness and pleasure, this record excels as brief poetic instrumental fragments. There is less thematic development here than on a full-length record of hers and more instrumental experimentation; what we lose in another fully formed document we gain in witnessing Laurel Halo’s fascinating work mid-process. Each piece here feels finished while its thoughts feel germinal, like this is the pupa of some further exploration she has yet to embark upon. In that sense, it’s a fascinating and worthwhile record, especially when read in the context of her other records.
As an introduction to her work, it functions as a snapshot into the clearly defined sense of dread, anxiety, alienation and tenderness she has made the center of her work. Even without the context of her other albums, the fact that she is concerned with the body, the psyche, and the tender relationship anatomically small people might have with communities, the world and the vastness of time and matter become clear. I played this record for a friend who had never heard her work before, and they spotted this relation and said it to me unprompted; not bad for a record that’s classified as a mini-album.
In fact, its smallness and containment of ideas, raw and open-ended on both sides, makes it a digestible introduction to an artist who has produced some of the more cerebral, emotionally challenging electro-acoustic music in the past five years or so. It’s not her magnum opus, but it’s still an excellent record and a strong sign of her ability to generate powerful, emotionally and intellectually meaningful work even in idle exploration and experiment.