Album Review: Laurel Halo – Dust (Hyperdub)

Expanding the musical universe by stealth

Artists don’t like to be pigeonholed in specific genres, they like to think their work is unique and cannot be filed alongside others. Laurel Halo is one of the few musicians that genuinely has carved out a style that cannot be categorised, her earlier singles and EPs revealed the influence of Detroit techno and could be slotted into the outer fringes of electronic and experimental styles. The latest album Dust is much further out there, there are electronic sound sources for sure but there are also acoustic instruments including saxophone, glockenspiel and percussion. These are rarely arranged in a conventional fashion even to those au fait with more avant-garde works. Yet Dust doesn’t have the challenging nature that one associates with the free musical styles, it is ethereal and disjointed, sometimes employing a beat but more often breaking that beat up into a simulation of industrial sounds.

Dust is like a musical universe with a language all of its own, if it has influences they are indistinct because there is no clear reflection of earlier artists. You can imagine that Halo is familiar with the sound of Laurie Anderson and Bjork but equally that her time with free jazz ensembles and appreciation of Philip K. Dick novels have had a bearing. On Dust her collaborators include Klein, a British Nigerian singer described by Dazed Digital as supernatural. Eli Kezler is a percussionist and composer with a penchant for complex sounds installations, and Craig Clouse is a London based keyboard player whose Shit and Shine project has been producing noise rock albums since 2004, the titles of which are worth looking up, if not perhaps, repeating in polite company. It’s a suitably disparate crew that Halo brought together at the EMPAC arts centre in upstate New York to make this recording in 2015, but not before she spent time figuring out which directions to pursue and how to distribute the lyrics among the 11 tracks. I use the word distribute deliberately, the songs such as they are do not always form a linear storyline. They are not completely abstract but there is little inclination to bend to conventional narration.

Having a large portion of acoustically derived sounds gives Dust a warmth and depth that you don’t get with purely electronic musical constructs, play this album at an entertaining level and it has shapes and structures that are enjoyable in their own right. There’s plenty of compression at work but that doesn’t stop the sounds from having a concreteness and presence, often to a far higher degree than Halo’s voice which is usually veiled and/or blurred in such a way as to reduce tangibility. Hi-fi it ain’t, intriguing, diverting and cleverly layered it is. The most accessible tracks are Moontalk where the chorus is in Japanese and the ever shifting soundscape is underpinned by complex rhythmic loops, and Jelly, a richly diverse tune with a multiplicity of sounds and layers over, under and around a relatively conventional song structure, when you can hear it at least.

Dust is for the adventurous music lover no doubt but it avoids the clichés of, usually man made escapades by offering a glimpse of a parallel world where everything is somehow better.

-Jason Kennedy

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