- From the more dance-oriented pop of her Spring EP as King Felix, to the darker, dizzier Hour Logic release on Hippos In Tanks, Laurel Halo has staked her claim as one of the more intriguing figures in ambient-leaning art-pop. Alongside fellow synth-obsessives Motion Sickness of Time Travel and especially Julia Holter, Halo's part of a breed of classically trained talents taking the blurry heat-haze of Hypnagogic pop into the more elegant, ethereal domains of former stalwarts like Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson. On Quarantine, her debut LP for Steve Goodman's hardcore continuum institution, Hyperdub—one perhaps not all that surprising given some of his recent A&R work like the signing of Hype Williams' Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland—Halo's forged what is often not only her most immersive and beautiful work to date, but one that's likely to be her most divisive as well.
The issue then: those vocals. In an effort to lay her voice as emotionally bare and vulnerable as the songs she sings beneath them, Halo left her voice purposefully devoid of effects and digital smog. The result, at times, is a broken-pitched wail that, as on "Carcass" or "Years," jars the listener out of the warm, burbling electronic bed surrounding them. It's a confrontational approach, and one based on a kind of sonic honesty that's commendable if often hard to listen to; it's an attempt to splice through this electronic glow—and Halo knows how to glow. These are songs of awkwardness and loss, emergent distances between spaces once enclosed, gapless. The juxtapositions are critical; this bleak voice, one of quiet certainty about how quickly everything dissolves that borders on the aggressive for just that reason, underpinned musically by the sounds of embrace.
Fortunately, for those of us undeterred by Halo's vocal approach, Quarantine is an often breathtaking piece of emotive reverie that stands sonically as one of the year's more consistently inviting ambient LPs. "MK Ultra" opens up with luminous electronics and almost strobe synth pulses before Halo reminds us of the diseases and fears that bedrock most human relationships, while "Carcass" is more spatial, with wider vistas, Halo's off-kilt wail open against its distant static froth and ebbing washes of synth. "Nerve" is all simmering pads and Space Odyssey synth peals—a floating Kubrickian fantasia—and "Thaw" opens with ambient bird-calls before segueing into the kind of slow-waltz pattern Cluster might have been proud of in the mid-'70s.
And of course Halo uses the aptly titled "Tumor"—"The signal keeps cutting out / But one thing is clear / Nothing grows in my heart / There is nothing here"—to create one of its most interesting sonic beds, a Japanese garden of far off chimes and wafting, shifting drone. It's a moment of uncomfortable detachment, this schizophrenic melding of the lost with music that almost seems to tremble. It's also a high watermark on an LP that continues to grow on me two months in, and one of the album's most compelling arguments to, please, get the fuck over your problems with her voice. There's so much else to revel in on Quarantine.
05. MK Ultra
12. Light + Space