By Matt Caputo
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When I first meet Laurel Halo, she has just returned from a cruise to Haiti. But the young electronic-music producer doesn't look any tanner than any other New Yorker who had just survived the winter, nor has she seemingly turned into the 21st-century version of Maya Deren, absorbing and documenting native ritual during her time on the island. Which isn't to say that her vacation didn't inspire her art.
"I made all these field recordings of the casino on our cruise ship," Halo says as she sits in her Brooklyn apartment and carefully pulls tobacco from the unlit end of her American Spirit as she twirls in her office chair. "All the machines were in the keys of C, F, or G, and it was this happy, major key—'winning' music, like this thick modal paste in the air, intoxicating everyone. I want to make tracks out of it; I can already hear it." A bus rumbles past her window for effect.
Major-key winning music might not be the first thing that springs to mind when listening to Halo's first full-length, Quarantine (Hyperdub). On her assured debut EP, 2010's King Felix, Halo revealed a talent for twisting electronic music toward her own ends as well as anyone else in the veritable boys' club that includes Ital, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Autre Ne Veut. Genre boundaries became hapless things in the face of Halo's polygonal music: '90s r&b, noise, freestyle, electropop, kosmische synth, and techno all enter the mix, though she's beholden to none of those styles.
Quarantine reveals a new wrinkle, marrying expansive electronic soundscapes to confessional lyricism. The giant leap forward is apparent in the album cover itself, which plays off the manga-subverting Japanese pop artist Makoto Aida's painting "Harakiri School Girls." Beaming, uniformed young women run samurai swords through their bellies and necks, seemingly at play amid spumes of blood, unraveling intestines, and bright rainbows. "I have a dark sense of humor," Halo says as she lights a cigarette. "Quarantine has a lot to do with the idea of possession, isolation, and being in a place with bad, contaminated air."
The album itself is a beguiling mass of contradictions and cross-purposes; even in her apartment, Halo can be a reticent interview subject. She apologizes for not being revealing, then explains that the lyrics to "MK Ultra" address a history of mental illness in her family. One hand bears a fresh coat of nail polish; the other doesn't. Her shoulders slump forward, and she wears a black baseball cap. She's most comfortable amid her keyboards and gear, with two glowing computer screens sitting at a cluttered desktop with a Haitian candle and an overflowing ashtray. Innocuous yet subtly psychedelic landscapes, painted by her father, hang on two walls. Halo opens up the most when her back is turned; she pulls up websites and shows me more of Aida's disquieting work.
Quarantine's startling cover art signals the sorts of musical choices Halo made this time around. "I initially set out to make something much more direct with up front percussion," she says of the arduous eight-month-long process that yielded the record. "But that aggression translated into submerging the rhythms and instead using the vocal for a slicing contour effect."
Quarantine represents a brave leap from both her past work and the work of her peers: It's lyrically direct yet musically abstract, dark and anxious yet blindingly bright, with big drums that could both send you either to the dancefloor or to your lightless bedroom. The loops and expansive structures can enthrall just as quickly as snatches of lyrics like "You'll make love to cold bodies/Fresh after they've gone" can send you plummeting back to hard reality.
Rather than cloak her vocals in reverb, delay, or even AutoTune as some might, Halo kept them dry and pushed them to the fore in hopes of hearing "how untreated vocals set in a wholly synthetic context can become disorienting." The result gives her words a directness and raw, cutting quality. "I wanted to make something truer and deeper than what I had done previously," she says. The album caught the ear of England's Hyperdub label, which has become revered over the past five years for releasing the cavernous, boundary-pushing dubstep productions of U.K. producers such as Burial, Zomby, and Kode9. A vocal electronic record might seem out of character for the label, but Halo attributes its interest to Quarantine's "melancholy spirit, paranoia, and dread."
Take "Years," a three-minute song that begins amid a gurgle of synths before Halo's vocals arise, startlingly close to the ear. "You're mad because I will not leave you alone," she sings to an unknown person. "I will never see you again," repeating the line while dropping the direct object, stretching out that last syllable to the point of despair as the synth belies that raw-nerve admission with a strange buoyancy. "I was not trying to make an emotional album," she says of some of the album's at-times-brusque words. "In the end, it's definitely not therapeutic, in that it just reminds you of those emotions again and again and again when you're mixing and listening to it thousands of times." Perhaps the sound of chiming, winning casino music will come next time.