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Laurel Halo returns, more ambitious than ever

| Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Laurel Halo BannerAndrea Savage | The Observer

To put it bluntly, Laurel Halo is the kind of musician who — while overflowing with talent — falls under everyones radar, never having produced a single record that fully captures the multidimensionality of her skills. Contrast her with Hyperdub labelmate Fatima Al Qadiri, who has turned heads with her sensational musical output, which is eye-catching on the surface but stale between the lines.

Halo did score some notice with 2012’s “Quarantine,” a haunting record that fused sensual, slightly-off vocals with post-apocalyptic electronic production à la cyberpunk pulp fiction. Halo is forthright about her influences, which include everything from Philip K. Dick to free jazz to Detroit techno — sounds pretty cyberpunk to me — and her ability to convey these influences is not limited to the forty-some minutes of “Quarantine.” You can hear it through the cold techno of the excellent, altogether overlooked “Hour Logic” EP and between the playful jazz interludes on “Chance of Rain” — both of which received tepid critical praise.

Fittingly, Halo’s latest record, “Dust,” has been successful to the extent that it conveys the many facets of her artistic capabilities, more or less following the “Quarantine” model. Though the two records convey entirely different moods — or perhaps because of this — they demonstrate the ease with which Halo can navigate various spaces through her music.

For one, the first thing I noticed about “Dust” was its overflowing sass. The magnetic production on tracks like “Jelly” and “Moontalk” should remind you of — and arguably outshine — dub producers like Holly Herndon or SOPHIE. As a longtime Halo fan, I’m tempted to add three exclamation points here to underline this exciting, wholly new artistic direction. Listening for the first time, I remember happily saying out loud: “Laurel Halo, what are you doing?”

Before the record was released, I was happy to read that Halo had been inspired by Nigerian-American experimental vocalist Klein — who recently signed to Hyperdub, by the way — and would be collaborating with her on “Dust.” Klein delivered a riveting impressionistic personal account on her dizzying debut, last year’s self-released “ONLY,” and Halo has taken after her with some of Halo’s most unapologetic lyricism yet. Lead single “Jelly” is practically a diss track, with catchy lines like “And you are a thief and you drink too much.”

Though lyricism was never Halo’s priority, on “Dust” she emerges as surprisingly personable, setting herself in stark contrast to the cold, “ghost in the machine” aura of “Quarantine.” But don’t let the basic “Oh my gosh” at the start of “Moontalk” fool you: Halo’s shallow moments singe with irony, and she imbues the record with depth through meditative interludes of self-exploratory improvisation.

After Halo pokes fun at superficiality, on “Koinos” for example, she delves into a hall of auditory mirrors that distort her voice just as real mirrors distort the way we view our bodies. And the deadpan “Who Won?” seems to mock combative romance over dynamic yet oblique free jazz.

Unfortunately, it’s no coincidence that Halo’s best received records are the only two that heavily feature her vocals — even though her production skill alone is praiseworthy enough. But it’s true that “Quarantine” and “Dust” complement her rich electronic arrangements with strong narratives that are conveyed best through vocals, even — or especially — when heavily distorted and manipulated.

But it’s by fusing her techno and jazz sensibilities with ambitious collaborations that push Halo into new territory. Halo has succeeded in creating a record that is quite unlike anything she has produced before, and quite unlike anything else released this year.


Artist: Laurel Halo

Album: “Dust”

Label: Hyperdub

Favorite Track: “Moontalk”

If you like: Klein, Olga Bell, Holly Herndon

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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