Music Reviews

Laurel Halo Quarantine

(Hyperdub) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

Laurel Halo, whose real name is Ina Cube, is an Ann Arbor, Michigander who moved to Brooklyn sometime in the 2000s. She's been on the rise this year, with two records: an EP called Spring, released on new label Liberation Technologies (under her other moniker, King Felix) and Quarantine, released on Kode9's successful label Hyperdub. Quarantine's album art, a holographic print on transparent film called Harakiri Schoolgirls 2002, by the Japanese artist Makoto Aida, is shocking and violent, reminding me of the epic bloodbath at the end of Kill Bill: Volume 1, where Beatrix Kiddo (played by Uma Thurman) kills every single member of The Crazy 88 with a sword; arms are cut off, guts are impaled, blood spurts out of dismembered heads like water shooting out of a sprinkler. It's a reminder that only rises to the surface because the cover, parodying anime schoolgirl culture, occupies a pop-cultural space that Halo's music would want to expand, augment, increase in size, increase in temperature. Yet nothing sounds faintly pop cultural; the album flows lento as if it were a river in a thick, detailed forest of hardware machinery – an intermittent, jammed flow, seeking a pattern, a route to a magnetic field where its dull, kinetic energy unearths and unleashes an emotionally nonviolent experience. The music not of airports, but of airplanes, of air conditioning inside of airplanes.

Her voice, mixed tremendously dry, isn't delightful; its timbre doesn't fascinate, sounding out of tune, out of time, and out of place within the electronic warmth of her instrumentals. On Hour Logic, the highly praised EP she released last year on Hippos in Tanks, she sang too, but it was mixed low, was more wet, and – above all – wasn't central or as central as Quarantine's mixing has graced it. Her lyrics are indirect, circling around the outskirts of an unidentified second person in sloppy melodramatics, suggesting foreseeable turmoils that a soap opera about computer scientists would, or as she sings on the last track, called Light +Space, “words are just words / words are just words / that you soon forget.” As much as we want to believe the album deals with “contrails, trauma, volatile chemicals [and] viruses,” as she mentioned in an interview with FACT magazine, her language only suggest the jejune, interpersonal conflicts of love – love drenched in doleful, distorted, misshapen exaggerations.

The usual smells and noises of her icy, glassy production are extracted from their usual powers, subdued from their arabesque, minimal breakbeats, exchanged instead for particles of white synth-dust besieged and swamped underneath choruses, verses, pop melodies, and vocal manipulations. We don't know if we are in cyberspace or somewhere in the suburbs: we don't even know if we are anywhere. Her voice is a displacement mechanism, leaving all narratives and environments between songs unreal, leaving her body as a foggy realm of activity as it filters through her sparse language, with her perceptions altered and cut off unevenly as one track escapes into the next. From a certain angle its as if she treats singing as synthetically as she does synthesizing, as an axis where feelings reshape into non-organic symbols, as factory-made forms of artificial flavoring.

Holoday and Carcass, the two tracks where the ABA structure is most rejected, are most successful at attaining this non-organic, artificial feeling: like drinking a Diet Coke, not knowing how it was made, but trusting it, having faith in its nutrition, its Nutrition Facts. Her voice on both of those tracks mechanizes into robot-like gutturals, contrasting the confines of her vocal range and tone color. It was in those moments on the album that I was taken aback by how much more beauty there was in Halo's voice when she manipulated it as opposed to her struggles with singing melodies. I couldn't help to ponder: is she trying to parody synth-pop singers, and if not, what is the true intention of her vocals? Is she trying to sing off-tune on purpose?

If albums could have Nutrition Facts, Quarantine would lack the vitamins and minerals we normally associate with Laurel Halo's production, but it's hard to dislike the album entirely because, after all, she's still quite skillful at making her Metal Gear Solid-esque ambiences seize and enrapture us with their swirling, bubbling drones. It's too early to predict, but it seems that her two monikers divide the vocal from the non-vocal: King Felix's Spring was vocal-less. In her future releases, how she deals with this division will be crucial. After all, it's whether or not you can manage to survive the shifting mirage of her voice that will make you want to listen to this album again and again.