I can’t be sure if I’m entitled to speak here for anyone else but myself, yet what is it that we’re really looking for when we listen to a record for the first time? We want to be surprised, I’d argue. We hope that what we’re gonna spend the next minutes of our precious lifetime with is something we’ve never heard before. The human, after all, is a curious being. But honestly, how often does that really happen? And sure, in contemporary popular music there will always be a place for faithful and masterfully crafted repetition, so don’t get me wrong. That’s just fine. But when I have to make a choice, I always expect the artist to fuck with my expectations, and those who really manage to do so are the ones I truly admire. Take Actress, for example. Or even James Ferraro.
But no one does it like Laurel Halo. After the critically acclaimed EPs that she dropped over the last two years, from the synth-poppy ‘King Felix’ to the more intricate and experimental, mostly instrumental ‘Antenna’ and above all the marvellous ‘Hour Logic’, it would have been easy to just keep going, or at least to repeat some of the patterns critics and listeners have come to love her for. No one would have blamed her for that. Or rather, as especially the latter effort was one of my favorite records of last year, I certainly wouldn’t have. But it takes only the first few seconds of ‘Airsick’, the opening track of Laurel’s first proper album Quarantine, to realize that she indeed has fucked with our expectations once again. The beats are subdued to a degree that leaves them almost insignificant. The synths are prominent yet carry no lead melody. Instead, Laurel’s voice is where it has never been before, right in the front on top of the mix, and what is most striking compared to the equally vocal-centred ‘King Felix’, it’s almost unprocessed, raw, bare, and vulnerable.
This is not only surprising considering her own oeuvre and the fact that after her debut EP, Laurel had expressly desired to get rid off her voice as a principal feature of her music. It’s also something I haven’t heard somewhere else, not in this blunt starkness, and I admit that it took me a few spins to get comfortable with it. Quarantine is surely nothing you’d consider an “easy” album. But if you let yourself in for it, very soon the record will unfold its unrivalled gracefulness, with tracks that are among the most breathtaking I’ve come across in years, the likewise stunning and unsettling ‘MK Ultra’, for instance, a song that sends shivers down my spine each time Laurel intonates the bleak chorus; or ‘Carcass’ with its menacing synth disruptions at the start. When the last notes of the majestic closing track ‘Light + Space’ – already one of my songs of 2012 – have decayed, one realizes that Quarantine ultimately is the work of a restless explorer and a true musical modernist, never settling for the given and comfortable. And that, after all, is what I’m always hoping for when I listen to new music.
photo by Tim Saccenti
Published May 24, 2012.