Chance Of Rain
, October 29th, 2013 09:39
Last time around, Laurel Halo's 2012 debut album Quarantine was a smart, slick echo chamber of science fiction landscapes and precision-engineered reflection, with lyrics cooly interrogating online demands for confession and personal display. While singing, especially on tracks like Quarantine's harrowing 'Years', Halo sounds like like the final girl in some splatter film who's all screamed and cried out and now has the post-adrenaline calm to dispatch whatever demons lurk in the bushes. It's a voice from a Betamax dream, like Debbie Harry's lips stretching out of the screen in Videodrome, but ghostly, not quite connecting, not breaking through. That aesthetic fit with that album, where no detail was misplaced, from the orchestration to the choice of cover art (candy-bright Japanese schoolgirls committing hara-kiri, anticipating the neon slurpee bloodlust of Spring Breakers). Surfaces dazzle as they flicker by.
Chance Of Rain sinks its hooks in deeper.
Time, post-internet, works in two ways online. There's the slide/slice: the object, the moment, the discrete unit of time that acts as a node in the flat internet universe. Then there's the scroll/stream: this is stuff like Facebook or Twitter feeds; it appears to flow linearly, but it's essentially a skeuomorphic calendar filter applied to an aggregation of the flow of slides, because once new things are added, and then become part of the flat agglomeration of data, they are never lost. Lived time is another beast entirely: it seems to be linear, but memory isn't; bodies droop and look progressively worse in selfies; the second law of thermodynamics kicks in. There's a lot of post-net art that addresses the possibilities and trauma caused by the first two conditions while completely ignoring the third.
Chance Of Rain is one of the first albums I've heard that fully acknowledges, let alone addresses, these contradictions and compositionally works across all three modes of perception. All the tracks on Chance Of Rain are instrumental, anonymised and therefore more universal. Halo combines the time-sliced gloss of the digital eternal present - the short-phase loops of sound, the textural stamps decoupled from their eras of vogue declaring the infinite, brutal flatness of everything ever imagined available all at once - with the kinds of jazz piano chord progressions last seriously heard in the early 80s. Opening track 'Dr. Echt' begins with unfolding rolls up and down the keyboard that evoke the expansive wonder of structures used by new age composer Pauline Anna Strom, recording as Trans-Millennia Consort, on tracks like 1984's 'Alpine Flight'.
Halo's sonic palette combines this with cartoonish noises, filtered to sound scuzzy, brittle, gloopy, melted. These effects highlight manipulation and play, and blend with the soft-focus keys of some fern bar and quaaludes Paul Simon late 70s comedown to create something grounded, specific to place, anchored in time. The track names here are all about dreams, what is real or archetypal, chases, mirages, all ideas that depend on a material foundation. The cover art - a drawing by Halo's artist father from the 70s - shows gravediggers pulling up as well as burying coffins, while random men hang around, lounging in other coffins like they're squashy coffee bar couches, or staring out into a distant field. In the foreground, a man who looks like a cross between Freud and Dracula grouches away.
In 'Serendip', Halo cues up about ten layers of low end, skittling around each other at different speeds and occasionally coming together. It sounds like one of those gravity well coin funnels at science museums where the coins all spin past each other, speeding up as they reach the bottom. When these reach a peak, hi-hats build an out-of-phase cicada chorus of fog, while swipes of clear, bright chords doppler past before the bass drops. What Halo does here is play with time, with these loops and layerings, these stacks of slides, while also staking territory within it as the track picks up pace, and scrolls ahead.
Her great leap is to move beyond retro-emulation for its own sake (conjuring ghosts from half-recalled soundtrack textures, however treated, is well and good, but what about the present, or the future? What comes next?). She also avoids the post-internet aesthetic of manipulation prevalent in both images and music. That sort of tweaking acknowledges the modular nature of pixels or bitstreams as objects in their own right, and applies filters, steps and repeats to create uncanny products that bear so little resemblance to their original sources that they can pretend to have sprung from the void. The album's press kit points out that all instruments were played by Halo to generate the source material used. To be clear, this declaration of and pride in an origin point is, thankfully, not the same as authenticity. That's a fetish that should stay in the twentieth century where it belongs, along with the idea that disconnected individualist atomisation is viable or even possible. (Would it even make a difference where Halo got her samples from? It's not like you can say "pics or it didn't happen". It's more interesting that she was bothered to make this kind of declaration at all.)
Speaking of origin points, in an interview by Jennifer Lucy Allan in this month's Wire, Halo describes her years growing up in Ann Arbor and Royal Oak Michigan, as "regular midwest" with "lots of driving everywhere, chain malls, churches and farmlands, where the nearest big city was Detroit". You know they don't have clocks in shopping malls, right? The reasoning is to keep the outside world out - changing weather, the sky getting dark - and to keep up the illusion that the ever-flowing fountains and immaculate surfaces of all the shop windows (that are cleaned after hours, behind closed doors) resist decay, and therefore, by spending, so can you. Casinos work the same way. It's not quite the singularity, but architectures designed to position consumerism as the path to Shangri-La are a step in that direction.
The rave, along with the mall and driving, is one of three typical late twentieth century experiences that set up the patterns and shapes of online time. You're basically dancing in boxes, walking around in boxes, and driving - collapsing blank distance by moving a box to shift what's outside your windscreen. Time spent in each box becomes an encapsulating frame around a chunk of lived experience. When you're sitting at a computer with multiple windows open, the box experience is the same; all you've really done is outsourced motion and time, but they're still having their way with your body.
Halo taps into early internet rave aesthetics, too: so many of the textures and beats of tracks like 'Chance Of Rain' and 'Still/Dromos' evoke Aphex Twin and Autechre, and - for me at least - the 'minimal' room of whatever dodgy, vacant metal building an hour's drive out from any minor midwestern city of the mid-90s was home to that week's 'rave'. Events complete with fog machines, black lights, and, if you were very lucky, a bank of old televisions linked to some video of fractal zoom animations that would usually crap out into static by 2am. Fractals and chaos theory - the two huge memes of those years that degenerated into screensavers for stoners and some of the worst pickup lines to enter a Hollywood blockbuster – are early imaginings of the infinite virtual now flickering on the screen, and the whole arcology of decaying materiality supporting it. Think of the servers cranking away, sucking down hydrocarbons, radiating heat. What's important is that, back then, both memes took up equal space and were not necessarily defined as oppositional.
That said, you can dance to parts of this album until you dissolve. 'Thrax' sounds like gumboots sucked into puddles of liquid latex, or arcade sounds from different quest-games piling on, similar to electronic composer Bob Ostertag's insane w00t (2007). The beats behind 'Oneroi' chug along like a rickety steam fair haunted house rollercoaster course, with minimal stabs of sampled distorted vocals emerging at random. The effect is like having a popup ad in a background browser window startle into life, hijacking the flow of whatever stream is flowing in the foreground, whatever screen your focus is scrolling through. In a magical, uncanny coincidence, 'Oneroi' synchs perfectly with Watermotor, a 1978 film of choreographer Trisha Brown's work, where the dance Brown performs is played back once at normal and once at half speed. 'Oneroi' is seven minutes and thirty four seconds; if you start the track to play when the Watermotor video hits the title screen (roughly the thirteen second mark), the synch is more uncanny than the Pink Floyd/Wizard Of Oz pairing.
Brown is a choreographer famous for her site-specific work: pieces where dancers would relay their movements across rooftops at a particular point of day, or pieces where they would perform suspended by pulleys, horizontally walking along walls. Watermotor moves the dance into a studio and then removes it again into film - turning it into a manipulable loop and entering slide time - but the bones of the dance remain: slowed down, Brown's breathing and exertion come into sharper focus, and there's no question of origin point. Watermotor the film is an artefact; Brown's body is key.
Water, too, is a recurring motif of Chance Of Rain, suggesting a flow of time that is chaotic, ever-changing, difficult to predict and irreversible. Beyond the title track, more water sounds lurk, waiting to break down floodgates and drown it all. 'Melt' sounds like Tuxedomoon played at the wrong speed, as chains clink and shuffle through behind, like driving in between the limits of two radio stations sharing the same frequency band. The threat of breakdown in 'Ainnomme' begins with an optimistic glide through plateaux of synth - starting like a dirtier, staticky take on Yellow Magic Orchestra's 'Loom' before the bone rattling metal on hi-hat drums clatter into the mix, the 4/4 kicks in, and at about the 2:30 mark the synth is stripped away, to be replaced with wheezing drill-like noises, grunts of large and heavy machines, on the verge of death. As more flights of synthesiser gather in the departure lounge, the track folds in on itself again and reconfigures, like a chaotic double-pendulum, where initial conditions unleash unpredictable outcomes that are mesmerising to watch. It's hard to tell what the end point is going to be, but what's clear is that an end is coming.