Anticipation for Laurel Halo’s first full length album has been building steadily as last year’s excellent Hour Logic EP became something of a word of mouth success. Quarantine is both satisfying and surprising in that it does far more than merely deliver what might be expected from this maverick and fascinating artist. The title is apt – the music here feels insulated, isolated and set apart from the natural world. Set in context, it feels as if it may be part of a broader agenda at the Hyperdub label to move away from the now established conventions of dubstep and bass music (the recent release from Dean Blunt and Inna Copeland, although more of a sample collage, seems motivated by similar concerns). Laurel Halo has made great strides here in developing the more abstract and questioning side of her musical personality.
Musically, much of Quarantine trades in experiments in texture and sound. Club rhythms are consciously avoided, and the overall sensation is weightless – sometimes unnerving, sometimes detached, but most often shot through with a curious warmth and a sense of innocence. There are times when Laurel Halo bears a peculiar passing vocal resemblance to Canadian singer-songwriter Kathryn Calder but the musical settings here are so far away from Calder’s infectious sugar rush melodies. Often, Laurel Halo’s vocals are intentionally intrusive, with disorientating melodic lines constructed using jarring intervals, her presence elevated by being set so far above the musical backdrop. It’s almost as if the very soul and purpose of this music is the creation of a harsh conflict between the voice and its surroundings. On Carcass, her heavily treated voice puncures a serene bubble of sound and hypnotic rhythm. The music may be mesmerising, but the voice is often deeply unsetlling.
At its most relaxed, Quarantine has a quality similar to the dreamlike reveries in the work of Julia Holter. Tumor pits repetitive and eerie mechanical sound against the unusual shape of Laurel Halo’s vocal melody, her harmonies adding to a sense of unease. On Airsick, she makes a virtue of what are largely clipped and monosyllabic lyrics, creating a strong feeling from the most minimal of ingredients. The closing Light And Space does indeed offer what it says on the tin, a pleasingly airy conclusion to a sometimes challenging and unsettling album.
Perhaps a more helpful comparison is with the hyper composed sound world of Dirty Projectors. Although Laurel Halo’s melodies often have the feel of being improvised or dispatched casually, but they may have in fact been very meticulously arranged. On the short interlude Wow, the harmonies have a similar playful starkness and attack.
If the music on Quarantine deals in construction and design, then the vocals explore the possibilities of consonance and dissonance to powerful effect. Some will find it either uneasy, or perhaps irritating, but these kind of unconventional musical presences appear only rarely and often prove divisive. Some will be tempted to define Quarantine as ambient music – but that feels misleading. Whilst it may be dream-like at times, the overall effect is surreal but not sleepy. There’s an alertness and sense of movement within these carefully crafted soundscapes.