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Laurel Halo
Dust Joseph Burnett , June 29th, 2017 16:06

Like her British counterpart Actress and her compatriots Holly Herndon and Jlin, Laurel Halo doesn’t make electronic dance music just for the sake of getting people bopping in clubs, even if her previous full-length, Chance Of Rain might on initial listens suggest otherwise. Halo is an enigmatic figure, in thrall to the powers of rhythm and bass as much as any producer but always keen to dissemble the tropes of the genres she toys with. Harking back to her 2012 debut Quarantine and then stretching well beyond it, Dust sees Halo delve deeper into the weird even as she pushes her music away beyond Chance of Rain’s techno-ish drive and into a warped form of pop song.

Even the word 'song' doesn’t really do justice to the ephemeral and enigmatic creations on Dust. Sure, there are vocals and melodies, but these are recalibrated and reimagined as Halo gives full flight to her avant-garde leanings. She has never been a straightforward artist, so her assertion that this is her “happiest” recording yet can be taken with a pinch of salt. On the surface, though, there is certainly a lot of fun going on across these tracks. ‘Jelly’, an obvious single, features bouncy New York house beats and warm, warbly synths alongside cheerful snare snaps and jangly percussion. It’s a busy concoction, as Halo’s deadpan lead vocal is joined by a mutated chorus of other voices that drop in and out. ‘Moontalk’, another bright anti-pop gem, features infectious hand-drum percussion swirls and blazing keyboard stabs, with Halo and co-vocalists (the album features Julia Holter, Klein and Max D, plus a plethora of other collaborators) chanting in Japanese over a series of oblique sound effects. The rhythmic shuffle and general air of elation echoes Remain in Light-era Talking Heads, without the background of interpersonal angst that band suffered from.

Likewise, opener ‘Sun to Solar’, with its pristine synth melodies, retro keyboard notes, double-tracked vocals and chattering beats is avant-pop of the most cheerful variety. Scratch at the surface of Dust, though, and a more complex and sombre reality reveals itself. Halo’s vocals never quite match the joyful tones of much of the music, instead possessing an introspective, muted quality akin to Young Marble Giants’ Alison Statton, and even on ‘Jelly’ she sardonically - or perhaps regretfully - decries a potential friend for being a thief and hypocrite who drinks too much. Turning this bleak analysis back on herself, she muses, “Sometimes I know not to drink too much”, the line coming across as stark self-criticism. ‘Who Won?’, a spectral mood piece, features Michael Salu morosely intoning in a seemingly nonsensical manner over crumbling industrial ambience, but that question - ”who won?” - echoes potently across the whole album. In this era of confusing elections, complex geopolitics and rising populism, the answer seems further away than ever.

The funky-but-muted electric piano and mournful sax lines on ‘Who Won?’ (very 1975-era Miles Davis) serve to highlight that Dust is an electronic album only in the vaguest possible way. Halo’s use of beats is often polyrhythmic in an almost jazz sense, while at times, such as on ‘Koinos’, she deploys effects and minimal sound sources like a downtown NYC loft artist circa 1978. The tense, foreboding ‘Arschkriecher’ features more baleful sax, massed vocal samples and a seesawing drone that could be from a looped violin, and it’s not hard to imagine someone like Tony Conrad making this music. Famed avant-garde drummer and experimentalist Eli Keszler plays on many of the tracks, notably the organic ‘Buh-bye’ which is replete with oddball percussive noises from a plethora of devices; he clearly helped shape the album’s creation as he bridges synthetic melody and pop with terse free improv and jazz.

Make no mistake, though, Laurel Halo is the guiding light throughout Dust, even when she’s not singing. Her almost monomaniacal focus on the intricacies of sound since her earliest releases has clearly culminated with this record, one that is in constant flux between joyful abandon and grim introspection, pop-tinged electronica and avant-garde expressionism. It’s an album that abounds with details but feels perfectly homogenous, and one can only wonder where Laurel Halo goes from here. It could be very interesting indeed.