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Laurel
Halo: Dust (Hyperdub)

Laurel
Halo continues to forge her own unique path, striking further out
from center with her third full-length for Hyperdub (her fourth if
you count her In Situ mini-LP that came out in 2015), and Dust sounds
like an artist fully coming into her own. Halo’s vocals feel easy and
playful here, much more so than ever before, though still light and
airy like her Quaratine album. Halo has always had a curious home in
Hyperdub, a label that tends to have a more obvious connnection to
bass music, though she does use low end in subtle and sophisticated ways,
often as an accent to her otherwise stream of consciousness rhythm
making and harmonizing. It’s taken me many listens in deciding
whether I actually like Dust or not, and I’m still not sure what that
decision is. However, I’m compelled by her utter uniqueness and for
her oddball instincts. “Sun to Solar” is sort of a woozy
anti-jam, with a perc organ that threatens to introduce a house jam.
Instead a tiny drum loop provides a backbeat to Halo’s wandering
vocal. Its unusual cadence and timing bring to mind the woozy stoner
sprawl of minimal techno producer Ricardo Villalobos, but to a very
different end, even further removed from the dancefloor resolution
that Halo often has flirted with but rarely totally throws down.
Every time I listen to Dust I get different reads and priorities from
it, and it’s the thing that ultimately earns my respect the most.
“Sun to Solar,” for continued instance, alternately sounds like
it is threatening to be a straightforward pop song, but in other
listens it sounds like it’s on the verge of completely falling apart
and that it only barely has structure. In this sense her music can
recall the intuitive, curious wander of contemporaries Autechre than
most of the Hyperdub roster, and it’s that curiosity and willingness
to follow her instincts that make Dust so fascinating, even as it
might test my patience at times. “Jelly” and “Moontalk” are
the two most conventional songs on the album, but that isn’t
necessarily saying much. “Jelly” has the most loosely funky
bassline of the bunch, but it’s interrupted midway by a
pitch-modulated jeer: “You
don’t meet my ideal standards for a friend! / And you are a thief and
you drink too much / And you fuck around too much / And you don’t
deserve it / And you are a hypocrite and you can’t do this / Oh, I
can do this.” And yet there’s something so infectious in their
weirdness and goofiness, especially the percussive details of
“Moontalk.” Compared to her more insular preceding efforts, Dust
draws cleverly on the talents of Halo’s collaborators of choice, at
various times incorporating Diamond Terrifier’s tenor saxophone,
percussion from Eli Keszler, and vocals from Klein and Lafawndah.
Despite those appearances, the end results still feel entirely of
Halo’s world, due to her unusual syncopation and curious
juxtaposition of mysterious, serious, and humorous elements. Why does
“Moontalk” feature so heavily Latin elements but then have a
chorus in Japanese and verses in English while telephone errors bleep
through periodically? I’m sure I’ll never know, but that takes away
neither from how much I enjoy it nor from its exuberance.

Laurel Halo: Dust (HDBLP036) by Laurel Halo

Brighter,
more rhythmic tracks like those are broken up by more abstract or
severe explorations of free jazz and ambience. “Arschkriecher”
pits saxophone over loose synth burbles, while “Nicht Ohne Risiko”
sputters and skips through a loose assortment of vibraphone mallet
strikes. “Who Won?” pairs spoken vocals by Michael Salu over sax
and hand drumming while most of the second half of the album includes
Shit & Shine’s Craig Clouse on electric piano. The ease with
which these tracks wander from structure to outer limits and back
again makes Dust feel like a stream of consciousness, letting
impulses freely guide the way. Halo’s harmonies with Lafawndah on
“Syzygy” are able to coexist with its nervous scattering of
percussion and tiny staccato bass sounds and somehow just feel right.
In some ways I’m not surprise that Dust has made the rounds of many
critics’ year-end favorites; it’s a quite unique, bold, and
imaginative accomplishment even relative to Laurel Halo’s already
interesting backcatalogue. And yet its uniqueness is the hook on a
record that is often otherwise lacking in them, with only a few
tracks with enough reliable underpinnings to feel infectious. It’s a
satisfying reminder that earworms aren’t always the most rewarding
listens, and that the world of sound remains a playground for the
creative and curious to tap into both the emotional and the esoteric
all at once.

Buy it: Bandcamp