Electro-chillwaver Halls is a boy in a bubble with a laptop, a self-effacing slip of a thing from New Cross. Previous releases were redolent of late nights full of smoke rings and Logic loops. With Fragile, his third EP, Halls keeps the intimate atmosphere but reaches past his lo-fi origins, increasingly full of conviction and even, in a quiet way, a touch of bombast, evident from opening track Sanctuary’s unexpected surge of strings. The palette is still electronica, but the sensibility is more post-rock – I Am Not What You Want recalls Radiohead, a band Halls has said he’d love to remix, at their very trippiest. The incomprehensible vocals are a blur of pure yearning.
Clearly Halls is aiming beyond the usual synths-n-beats, but he doesn’t overplay the effect of classical instrumentation, allowing, for example, a Tim Hecker-ish piano loop to drop in and out of the song Lifeblood rather than slathering it all over like syrup. These days Halls also plays live with the help of other musicians, but the strings and piano here are digital, not analogue. Despite many electro producers’ fascination with live instruments and analogue sound – a fascination Halls has also confessed to – the egalitarian touch with which laptop producers can reach for everything from church organs to 808s is what gives Halls his ability to move easily among sounds, nuances and even genres.
It’s become conventional to mix up influences from the same musical DNA, a broad strand with the genotype Brian Eno. Past releases showed off Halls’ ability to recombine sounds and samples with uncommon skill, but there’s way more to show off this time than clever blending. The hypnagogic genre-bending touches of the first two EPs now take more of a back seat as the vocals and ‘real’ instruments hcome into what you could almost call the foreground, if these songs weren’t so covered in mist and haze as to make foreground and background difficult to distinguish.
The songs are densely layered, everything buried under everything else, like a messy bedroom, but there’s clarity and sharpness here too amid the fuzz. I Am Not What You Want sounds like a camera lens circling in and out of focus as the vocals swim amid the surf and the beat kicks in now and then only to think better of it. That makes Halls sound aimless and shoegazey, but he keeps things taut, with a nice feel for rhythm and build that might be the reason why this resolutely un-dance-y music bears some comparison with the likes of Gold Panda and Neon Indian, albeit in super-restrained form. Disco dysphoria.
The length of the tracks is testament to Halls’ discipline: the epic Lifeblood clocks in at well under four minutes, and even the longest and most woozily expansive track, Fade To White, leavens its sense of muted dread with sharply paced beats. There’s always a faint edge of menace, or maybe it’s just melancholy. This brief but beautiful EP hovers at the edge of the dancefloor, aware of the dawn breaking outside.