Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Album Review)

It's now been several years since the release of Laurel Halo's beguiling and misunderstood masterwork 'Quarantine'. Initially online commentators engaged in fearsome debates surrounding the most controversial aspect of the release, her vocals. Either seen as fearlessly upfront or unbearably flat, the vocal delivery throughout made no attempt to win over non believers. Unlike many underground releases, which hide traditionally not pristine vocals through pillow like layers of washy reverb, the vocals here cut straight through the mix.

I don't like to call the sexist card lightly, but there does seem to be an immense amount of leeway given to less than adequate male singers, as oppose to female. "Endearingly imperfect", or phrases of that sort, are commonly attached to male singers whose inability is somehow seen as more characterful than that of female vocalists. Perhaps the age old necessity for women to be only pretty, perfect and restrained persists. Halo makes no attempt to maintain her composure throughout this release, her vocals will often deliberately strain to reach notes, or stay flat to such an extent that they create a sort of monotonous drone.

To judge 'Quarantine' only on the vocal performance is to thoroughly miss the point. The album doesn't craft, so much as violently forge an alien landscape. Halo achieves a far more carnal and feral form of futurism, attacking the body as much as the musical form. When listening to 'Quarantine' you are constantly aware that it's her own beast, which is bizarre considering the albums inclusion of analogue synthesizers, something you might expect to create a nostalgic warmth or glow. However in this environment they perform no such function. The album is difficult to lump into any particular scene. Some link it to the hauntology or hypnagogic movement, due to it's use of analogue synths. However the album doesn't so much sound like the nostalgia for a lost future, more an ambiguous yet prescient prediction of a future yet to arrive.

Halo has said that "A lot of the tracks have this pressure-tank or recycled-air feeling to them-- when you're on an airplane and constantly breathing in the exhaust of your neighbours." Thematically there is a claustrophobic feeling persistent throughout. Simultaneously being suffocated, as well as isolated. The quote from Halo reveals a certain kind of paranoia of your surroundings. Many spend their entire day within the confines of minute office cubicles, breathing in copious amounts of artificial air. This record almost comes across as a soundtrack to this experience.

The song 'Carcass' musically embodies this feeling of walls slowly closing in, a hysteria caused not by any drastic or traumatic situation, just the sensation of being confined against your will in a synthetic environment. 'MK Ultra' on the other hand is named after a CIA experiment on human subjects. In an attempt to create the ideal soldier, they would force patients to take psychedelic drugs, as well as experiment with hypnosis, sexual abuse and sensory deprivation. This all adds to the ongoing feeling present on the record of either being mentally or physically trapped.

To characterise the themes as being devoid of the tactile, personal and human, would be an inaccuracy. Laurel Halo has said that "to me the bleak and raw was key, and I think people that have been heartbroken maybe get the record more." This adds another dimension to the album, but continues the idea of deprivation. However this time it is the feeling of being deprived from someone else, through rejection, betrayal or loss. The final track 'Light + Space', is an example of this other subject, which inhabits the record. The song is more sparse than a great deal of other tracks on the album, more hopeful and personal in tone also. It allows for a far more obviously beautiful vocal melody to play out over a weightless and directionless sonic surface.

The electronic musician-perhaps more than any other-is seen as a sonic architect. Someone who creates sound sculptures that draw little upon the natural noises which occur within our day to day environment. It's tempting to see Laurel Halo as an artists that embodies this idea. After all I used the phrase beguiling at the start of this review, and I really should stress this point. It's unlikely you'll find another album just like 'Quarantine'. Music should be a strange and unfamiliar experience. The dense theory surrounding much contemporary underground electronica, somewhat takes away from the raw pleasure of being plunged into rapid currents of jarring and unfamiliar sound.

What Laurel Halo has crafted is her own distinct form of digital psychedelia. This has been achieved through both her production skills and the use of her unedited voice. It's strange that the instrument responsible for some of most innovative sounds of the past decade is also the most primitive. What's more rudimentary than the human voice? The instrument appears to have a limitless capacity for generating as yet unheard of sounds. After all for thousands of years we have used it for all manner of purposes, from Gregorian chant and Mongolian throat singing, all the way through to rhythmic beat boxing.  A fresh wave of producers (including Laurel Halo, Holly Herndon and Katie Gately) have continued this trend by utilising and warping their voices as a thrilling new method for generating new sounds.

How this record will be looked back on in 20 years time is unclear. Sadly the likelihood is that it shall remain forever marginalised. Never appreciated to the extent it should be. The very vocals which condemn this release to eternal obscurity, are also the key driving force behind it's distinct vision. For now at least it can be seen as a startling reflection of a digital 21st century experience. It may not always be the most inviting record, but stands true to the obvious statement (but still one which needs repeating) that there are always exciting new avenues to explore within music. We don't have to listen to the bitter among us who proclaim musical creativity peaked decades ago. As Laurel Halo sings "Forward motion is the only answer".

Twitter - @eden_tizard