Dust finds Laurel Halo in two minds: continuing with previous effort In Situ’s (2015) experiments in slow-paced percussive beats, and a newly found day-glow pop buoyancy that bubbles forth from the cream of the tracks on this new LP.
Perhaps inspired by her recent collaboration for virtual anime star Hatsune Miku, Dust features contributions from a number of contemporary fellow-minded musicians, including Klein, Lafawndah and Julia Holter. But the most integral collaborator here is probably percussionist Eli Keszler, whose intricate percussion and drums sound woven into the fabric of the tracks.
Dust is also a Laurel Halo ‘singing’ album, picking up the mic for the first time since her breakout debut Quarantine (2012). Since then, she’s stuck with voiceless beat science releases – the Chance of Rain LP (2013) was a brilliant collection of morphing shape-shifting techno tracks, whereas the In Situ EP (2015) was a thick soup of darkly rendered tracks over tumbling percussion and erratic beats. So it’s a pleasant surprise with Dust that the mood is so upbeat, but with a veneer of darkness still in view on the farther reaches of the album.
Opening tracks Sun to Solar and single Jelly present luscious vocal and organ melodies on top of complex, jazz-styled percussion. Along with Moontalk and Syzygy, these bouncy tracks form a happy nucleus of the album. For such a ‘serious’ artist of Halo’s stature, it’s nice to hear these poppy tracks unabashedly front and centre. In contrast to Quarantine’s vocals recorded with immediacy and rawness, as if plugged in straight to the mixing desk, from the start of Dust the treated vocals and multiple voices keep the mood playful. The interplay between the vocals and the lively percussion is key – the songs are spacious with room for other instrumentation and samples to keep the tracks moving in interesting directions. The result is some of Laurel Halo’s more memorable tunes that will bring her sound to a wider audience.
In contrast to the ‘hits’ on Dust, other tracks are more meandering and experimental, and stylistically descendants of the beats on In Situ. Koinos begins with those slow absent-minded percussive beats, but a diffuse melody on a glockenspiel plays out on top and eventually swooping vocal lines descend into view that alchemizes the sludge into something quite different and open-ended. Instrumental Arschriecher features a mournful saxophone with strings adding tension, while Nicht Ohne Risiko returns to the slow beat territory with strange samples underneath but a nice kalidescope melody on top to again keep the mood light this time around.
Who Won? is perhaps the oddest track on the album, with a cut-up style spoken word piece by Michael Salu delivered over more sparse saxophone wails and noodlings over those slow beats again, punctuated by key stabs from an organ. The effect is hypnotic, if not a little disorienting. Like An L continues the down tempo jazzy pace, and feature Halo’s impressionistic vocals that dovetail with the warbling organ chords in the background, drums and chimes.
Standout track Syzygy is where the various stylistic forays of Dust come together most effectively. The interlocking rhythms move the track forward, and the simple bass line and melodies create a delicate space where the lyrics can unfold – an obtuse erotically-charged tale with a chorus of ‘I said get up, I said time for love’. As the track breaks up at the end, it fades and shifts, recalling some of the elegant endings to her longer techno excursions.
In Do U Ever Happen, Halo sings “since I was a kid I loved lighting fires, small scraps of leaves and plastic”. This sentiment nicely sums up her approach to music – a childlike and honest exploration of sound, lighting fires/making music with both the organic materials of voice and percussion, all made possible by banks of plastic musical machinery and electronic software. This track is the emotional closer, with slow-paced gorgeous chords drifting off to ‘Did this ever…happen? Do u ever…happen?’
Of the diverse moods and feels of Dust, in the end it’s the sunshine-infused tracks that tend to carry the day. As a result, Laurel Halo has kept pace with her own high standards and continued evolution to craft one of 2017’s sunniest patches of electronica.