Laurel Halo – Quarantine on Hyperdub

Our boy Ravelston (Rob Dunstone) gets into the world of Laurel Halo’s Quarantine.

After my first listen to Laurel Halo’s ‘Quarantine‘ LP, I proclaimed on Twitter that it was “retro-futurist ambient bass music (if that’s a thing…)” After repeated listens I am pleased to announce that it is very much a thing, and a good one too.

The atmosphere that chokes you, like a room full of smoke, the minute you start ‘Quarantine‘ is that of un-easy sci-fi, dystopian soundscapes. Awkward and uncomfortable beauty rising out of discordant and austere structures. Beautifully clean and elegant synth lines sit amongst crackles, white noise and grumbling, skittering rhythms, like a creepily placid ‘Rekall’ advertisement, playing from a broken monitor as the alarm sounds and the building is ripped to shreds by gun fire, all muffled into a low haze by the tinnitus left from the first explosion. Listened through headphones it’s a powerful and immersive experience.

The austerity of opener ‘Airsick‘ is dampened somewhat as the albums progresses, flaring up in places and always rumbling along beneath the surface. However the beautiful shimmering synth component to the sound is built upon more and more. ‘MK Ultra‘ features a fantastic arpeggiated line that swells through the phrases, ticking over in a way very reminiscent of Autechre’s ‘Amber‘. Album finale ‘Light + Space‘ is fantastically ethereal, evoking both of its namesakes and closing the record in a beautiful, comfortable glow. The production throughout is luscious and rich, at once warmly nostalgic and crisply clean and brutally modern. There doesn’t seem to be any unwanted noise or artifacts at all, but a wealth of deliberate sonic malfunctions, all orchestrated perfectly within a pristine workstation.

The vocal element of Halo’s work is vastly more dominant throughout ‘Quarantine” than it has been in any of her previous work. While it has, in the past, been used as a complementary instrument, this sees her voice come to the forefront, almost every track having a clear, lyrical vocal line. To start with it’s a little jarring. Through ‘Airsick‘ and even more so in ‘Years‘ she is startlingly flat and dissonant, but (I presume) quite deliberately, which turns it from being flawed and irritating to being quite beguiling, if a rather uncomfortable to begin with. The “flaws,” so to speak, of her voice are pushed dominantly into the forefront and become a vital element in the dystopian world she is building.

As can probably be surmised from my description of the album as “ambient bass music,” where her two previous EPs were drum heavy electro/future-garage (I really do not want to get into that contentious realm of finding tags and labels for bass music sub-genres) this is almost entirely beat-less. Any percussive components that remain are drenched in such processing as to sound like distant movements of heavy machinery, the rattling of lose bolts and, to return to my ‘Total Recall’ analogy, the onslaught of approaching gunfire. Gone are the snares and kicks. Where this needs to be rhythmic, it does so in a way that sounds utterly organic and not in the least contrived, as if these rhythms are present because that is how the sound happened, not because a producer decided their track needed more punch. This is clearly not dance-floor material, but it retains a solid groove through many tracks, and a sense of urgency throughout, often rising to become quite frenetic.

With ambient music as a genre (I feel I have dug myself a hole here, as I do find it a rather irritating tag, but it does the job, and I’ve made my bed on this one…) tired and trite archetypes are rife. Nods to seminal works are apparent throughout many new artists’ output, and (perhaps due to the often stripped and simplistic yet highly distinctive form) influences frequently turn into fully-fledged rip offs. But at no point does it feel to be tritely imitating, as so many do. It veers through a much more freeform, soundscape orientated path than many similar albums. In many places becoming harsh, loud and dissonant, the tracks grow in seemingly organic directions, rising and falling to what feels more like a cinematic narrative than a bar and phrase based musical path.

If this review comes across as gushing and sycophantic then so be it. The only real flaw that I can find (after a relatively short listening period) is more a constraint of its genre than an inability to work within it. The atmosphere is so thick and constant that it limits the potential for variation somewhat. While the album doesn’t feel in the least bit tired through the course of each listen, I can see it losing its appeal for everyday listening in the long-run, that is to say, other than in particular circumstances. More experimentation with drums and percussive elements may have alleviated this, but clearly that was not the agenda with this release. The previous, beat-led EPs were certainly interesting and exciting, but lacked the cohesion that this album has. While it may be that in several months time I groan at the prospect at having another ‘Blade Runner’ themed walk to work, and I don’t choose to stick it on as I tidy the house, or take a trip to the gym, I know that there will always be times that require a beautifully dissociated sci-fi soundtrack, and this will deliver perfectly.


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