Laurel Halo is the type of artist, like Rustie and Hyperdub label head Kode9, that knows how to craft exciting, straightforward, functional tracks. All three could make careers out of releasing DJ tools. For example, Halo’s “Head,” from last year’s Hour Logic EP, perfectly captures dub techno’s balance of precision and ambient exploration. If she wanted to, she could probably ride that sound for another decade. It’s important to keep these skills in mind when evaluating these artists’ more experimental, less immediate works – even if they make missteps, they’re commendably exploring their own interests, rather than sticking to conventions.
Hyperdub’s release of Quarantine has turned a few heads, since the album is fairly removed from the hardcore continuum variations that make up the bulk of the label’s catalog. This is silly — it’s not like Warp releasing Maximo Park albums. The type of personal, freeform electronics crafted by Halo, Hype Williams and Oneohtrix Point Never has been swimming around U.K. dance music for a while now and frequently appears in the sets of DJs like Ben UFO. For better or worse, sounds and scenes continue to collide, and such collisions are completely consistent with Hyperdub’s M.O. It’s not surprising that Halo’s first release for the label would a bit challenging, rather than instantly appealing.
If you were to remove the vocals from Quarantine, you’d be left with her most pleasant, haunting, well-produced ambient recordings to date. These instrumentals are far removed from not only the tweaked pop of 2010’s King Felix EP, but Oneohtrix’s denser ambient collages. The sounds are polished, layered and distinct, almost like an updated, abstract version of Mark Clifford’s Disjecta project. If anything, I’m excited to see how Halo continues to explore and refine these ideas.
Ultimately, though, the vocals are the sticking point. They’re unadorned and upfront, like Laurie Anderson without the attitude or a less-operatic Bjork. On the page, repeated lyrics like “The signal keeps cutting out, but one thing is clear / Nothing grows in my heart, there is no one here” and “Words are just words that you soon forget” look as if they could cut to the bone, but Halo makes no concessions in her delivery. Songs of loss and isolation are typically delivered through comforting vehicles — even the darkest passages of Lou Reed’s Berlin connect like detached lullabies. Halo’s voice, pronounced in the mix, artfully mangled, purposely unperfect, reaching at unreachable notes, and occasionally beautiful, is far from a relief. Whether this is riveting or off-putting is for each listener to decide.