Review: Laurel Halo – Dust
National Music Reviews
Laurel Halo = James Ferraro + Holly Herndon
After a few quiet years, Laurel Halo returns with Dust, her first release to feature vocals since 2012’s now-classic Quarantine. However, the comparisons between those two records end there: Dust finds Halo in a new mode, working with warped dance samples, freely improvised drumming and an arsenal of pitched percussion. The product is a record that overflows with musical nuance. Holding everything together is an alien, dreamlike atmosphere and Halo’s ability to playfully manipulate rhythms while writing gorgeous melodies.
The first half of the record delivers the most lively cuts Halo has ever released, but still veers far left of convention. Opener “Sun to Solar” features a looping techno sample that’s chopped-up and clipped, removing any sense of homogeneity. The whole track undergoes one massive swell, climaxing with a cacophony of echoing vocals and dissonant synthesizers. Lead single “Jelly” is vibrant, featuring a driving drum loop and a circus of warped vocals. As confounding as it is when Halo drops a line like “My eyes, back there in the mirror where I left them,” her syncopated delivery is gleefully punchy.
“Moontalk” is the most bombastic track here, featuring busy hand percussion and a goofy, triumphant synth sample. Again, Halo disregards linear structure in favor of staggering repetitions and entrances, implanting wayward sounds, varying from strings to dial tones. Her lyrics ask “What if you walked? And what if on your walk, you breathed? And what if on your breath, you heard the moon talk?” Surreal imagery is common on Dust, where lyrical fragments often obscure the places, situations and actors of Halo’s stories. On “Who Won?,” a pitch-shifted spoken-word piece tops a cluttered and eerie ambient instrumental. “They arrived yesterday. Everything is ready. What’s the phone number? What’s the password?” the narrator drones, rambling to no one in particular.
The use of studio treatment on Halo’s voice often obscures the lyrics beyond recognition: She freely floats between different languages and layers her voice into stacked choruses. As such, the vocals lie in a sort of linguistic, uncanny valley, close to legibility but still shattered across language borders and distorted toward confusion.
The second half of the record does away with energetic dance tracks in favor of more subdued and slower compositions. “Like an L” features dreamy synthesizers so densely layered that the harmonies blur together, but the flat progression doesn’t offer much in terms of direction. Thankfully, a few tracks later comes “Do U Ever Happen,” and Halo showcases her ability to write a truly moving ballad. The number of different instrumental tones that randomly pop up throughout the track are innumerable, but each one feels delicately placed and adds to the track’s controlled mania. When the harmonized vocals question, “Did this ever happen? Do you ever happen?,” it feels like a summation of everything on Dust. No matter how tangible things might get, there’s still an underlying sense that it all might be a dream or a ruse.
Dust ends with a track fittingly titled “Buh-bye” and serves as a last-ditch effort to explore Halo’s experimental tendencies. Easily the most convoluted and abstract piece here, it’s disorienting how much Halo packed into the glitchy mix of percussion and synthesizers. Even though it might not have the visceral immediacy of “Jelly” and “Moontalk” nor the intense emotionality of “Syzygy” and “Do U Ever Happen,” its complete disregard of structured coherence makes it a worthy closer. Dust is truly a musical feat. Laurel Halo has found new bounds of hyper-abstract dance music and displayed them vividly. –Audrey Lockie