Release Date: Jun 23, 2017
Record label: Hyperdub
“There’s a lot of weight to the word “dust,” in terms of a process of change, or a process of becoming, or a process of resolution.” – Laurel Halo, interview with The FADER, 2017 D ust, Laurel Halo’s third full-length, is bright and loose, a collection of tracks dancing at the borders of entropy. United in their restlessness, they probe at the foundations of structure and form, always unfolding, always moving towards. In Halo’s hands, that aforementioned liminal space “between virtual and actual” becomes bathed in warm sunlight, and her music responds in kind: melting and molding itself into hazy shapes, all the while retaining a sharpness that rends and sutures.
M ichigan-born producer Laurel Halo started out with stargazing synthpop songs, before abstracting and then bleeding out her vocals altogether, culminating in a gloriously offbeat take on dub techno. She now brings voices back into the fold, including guests such as Julia Holter and Lafawndah, on an album that brilliantly reimagines jazz song-craft for the 21st century. The drum programming shuffles, rustles and clangs like a broadsheet being folded on the tube, rarely settling into a steady pulse.
Conceived and recorded with a range of co-collaborators, Laurel Halo's fourth album, 'Dust', began taking shape in 2015 during a stint at the Experimental Media And Performing Arts Centre in New York. Evaluating Halo's music can feel like a task fraught with danger, not least because the kind of words you'd associate it with ('deconstructive', 'experimental') suggest it would be a tough listen. And yet that's far from the case with 'Dust'.
Never one to box herself into a specific form, Laurel Halo has shed skin and added new wrinkles to her chameleonic practice with each release. After wowing audiences with a first EP in 2010, she debuted a new pop persona on 2012's Quarantine, only to chase it with a series of instrumental releases. Now, on Dust, Halo returns to the abstract pop of Quarantine, this time joined by an expansive cast of collaborators as she forges unexpected stylistic intersections throughout.
When Laurel Halo first announced her arrival on the 'scene' back in 2012, with the instant underground hit that was Quarantine, it was with a sound that courted the mood of dream pop whilst stubbornly throwing all sorts of lightly dystopian spanners into the mix. Subsequent efforts, chiefly Chance of Rain (2013) and In Situ (2015), have slowly exorcised the demons that seemingly haunted the first Laurel Halo LP by delving ever further into the realm of experimental dance music. When I last saw Laurel Halo perform live, at the much-missed Incubate Festival in Tilburg in September 2015, she even briefly threatened to stop playing until the audience in the theatre-style room she was performing in got up and danced.
Given Halo's past releases and background this comes as no surprise. Classically trained, and having spent time in free jazz ensembles and DJing for Berlin Community Radio, her breakthrough came with 2012's shape-shifting avant-pop album Quarantine, an abrasive entry hailed by many as one of the best albums of that year. Its moody, ambient world-building was punctured by her unprocessed and raw vocals, an element some were keen to criticise.
There's a track on Laurel Halo's first album, 2012's Quarantine, called "Joy." At first it glows with warmth, but after a while dissonant chords cool the mood. On a record full of angst and paranoia, the message seemed to be that joy was something lost, or unattainable. Halo's music since has pursued the emotion. On 2013's Chance Of Rain, she ditched the anguished singing to focus on spry drum tracks inspired by her live sets; at the time, she wondered if "this is the kind of music that I'm meant to make, because it just makes me feel better.
At the midpoint between restless and contemplative lies Laurel Halo. The Berlin-by-the-way-of-Ann-Arbor producer's releases tend to veer off in too many directions to be suitable for focused tasks, like studying. But they're also fairly low-key. Halo's tracks are full of activity, but she knows how to pace them to avoid overload.
Laurel Halo has taken a winding, unpredictable route to her third album for Hyperdub, and once again, her new record feels like a reaction against the last. The American-born, Berlin-based musician has consistently deflected interpretations of her music's meaning, eluding attempts to classify her by genre, gender, or otherwise. While her club-focused EPs have been influenced by various foundational elements of Detroit techno, those same elements--jazz, funk, a certain sci-fi sensibility--have fused in entirely unexpected ways on her full-lengths.
With Dust, Laurel Halo lays stakes in a perfect middle ground between the bent art-pop, thumping house, and maximalist musique-concrete-as-IDM of her prior work, but achieves this by allowing fractures to show, letting components sit side by side without ever forcing them to fit together sensibly. Beats ebb and flow, jerk and disappear; melodies blow in only to drift off or get tattered beyond recognition; bubbly dance beats sidle up next to haunted, stumbling songcraft. Halo's layered, yet largely unadorned, vocals are back in full force here after a break on previous record In Situ, and they're more essential than ever, doing the heavy lifting to turn skittering shards of free improv and squiggly collage into sturdy songs.
B erlin-based experimentalist Laurel Halo has previously shown a proclivity for the disarmingly strange and beautiful; on album three we find similarly disconcerting classical cacophonies and fractious electronics. Lyrically, Halo takes inspiration from concrete poetry, with her and guests including Klein and Julia Holter leaping between singing and sprechgesang. Right from opener Sun to Solar, there is an undercurrent of warmth that continues throughout - even eerie moments of free jazz are imbued with humour (one such track is called Arschkriecher - or, in English, "arse-kisser").
The stark minimalism of 2013's Chance of Rain was both an artistic leap and an abrupt stylistic transition for the American electronic artist. Ditching the vocals that had in part characterised debut Quarantine made for an often brutal experience but, for those prepared to connect as the work demanded, one that eventually revealed an unexpected beauty. Dust is a re-tread only in as much as it gathers the core componentry of both those records and couples them within a new and fascinating design.
Following several releases of moody experimental techno, including 2013 full-length Chance of Rain and 2015 double-EP In Situ (issued by Honest Jon's), shapeshifting producer Laurel Halo returned to vocal-based works (as well as her previous home, Hyperdub) with 2017 album Dust. In some ways, the recording seems like a sequel (or maybe a sibling or cousin) to Quarantine, her vocal-heavy 2012 debut full-length which received mountains of critical acclaim but was nevertheless often referred to as "difficult" or "divisive. " Dust is a further abstraction of the art-pop inclinations of Quarantine, placing a bit more focus on beats, although the rhythms constantly shift and mutate.
Dust can serve multiple symbolic functions. It may assume a wistful, almost nostalgic connotation, as in the dust that coats an attic full of once beloved, now forgotten belongings. Or, more nihilistically, it can suggest entropy, the inevitable physical decay always lurking just around the corner. Laurel Halo borrows from both of these representations on her third LP with Hyperdub, crafting a series of drifting art pop pieces that evoke forgotten, buried materials long since fallen into disrepair.
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.