Laurel Halo's collaboration with James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never on the seventh volume of the “FRKWYS” series seems to have been premonitory, in the sense that the three have established themselves as the great white hopes of the most audacious and restless electronica in the USA, true innovators of the sound and intentions of synthesizer music. Obviously, their entry into the major league, reaching a wider audience at the cost of mixed opinions, came as a result of having released their most acclaimed efforts: “Far Side Virtual” (Ferraro), “Replica” (Daniel Lopatin), and now Laurel Halo is putting out this intriguing “Quarantine”, on which she gets rid of the hipster house label that she had been given after her interpretation of techno and house on “Hour Logic”, her previous, highly acclaimed EP, as there's not much to dance to. Gone as well is the hypnagogic pop she was linked with through her connections with Daniel Lopatin, like when she sang on the first EP by Games, the predecessor of Lopatin and Joel Ford's pop LP. So it's a clean slate for Halo, though it's obvious that “Quarantine” is the culmination of her previous work in a sound that is hers alone.
Like the illustration on the album sleeve by Makoto Aida, the sound of “Quarantine” is one of poisoned beauty. The artwork’s suicidal teens are in tune with the general tone of a record which, though full of inklings of beautiful melodies, is sharp and raw. The album title already indicates a feeling of isolation, of lack of oxygen felt when listening to the songs, a feeling of uneasiness, emphasised by some titles, such as “Airsick”, “Carcass”, “Tumor”, and in the controversial line from “MK Ultra” where she nonchalantly refers to necrophilia.
Regarding the sound, rugged digital textures abound on “Quarantine”, like a tense and menacing version of ambient. In fact, the darkest moments on the album remind me of the tough vision of ambient offered by Aphex Twin on “Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2”, on which tracks like “Carcass” could have fit in easily, had it not been for the voice (which here sounds twisted and tortured, directly facing the listener, mixed as it is very much in the foreground). In several interviews she has stated that she tried to make her voice sound like an aggressive synth line, and it's very likely many listeners will be taken aback by that very element, even though it does the job of raising the tension. All those elements make listening to “Quarantine” an intense experience, although that tension is constantly counteracted or sabotaged by little melodic outbursts, like the piano loop on “Airsick”, or the luminous melody of “Thaw”, which finds its way through a mass of ice-cold, crunching digital sound... Or are the layers of noise sabotaging Halo's attempts to sound more pop?
“Quarantine” stands out for its density; it's as if its vaporous layers could become solid any moment. However, almost all of the tracks balance on more or less recognisable pop structures. On all of them, you can sense a microscopic effort to superimpose noise over other, brighter and more accessible sounds, which creates a tension that makes for a greater emotional impact, avoiding affectedness and new age as used by other contemporary synth projects like Motion Sickness of Time Travel.
“Quarantine” is the soundtrack to those nights of anxiety and panic where insomnia rules, and of urban solitude in spite of the possibilities of connection offered by the non-space that is the Internet. Halo faces modern fears head-on and depicts existential tension in the digital era. Like on Oneohtrix Point Never's “Replica” (in fact, “Light + Space”, the album’s closer, could have been taken from that album), Laurel Halo manages to take the aesthetic of synths drenched in digital sounds to new emotional levels. Fearlessly exploring the dehumanising side of electronica, she achieves a sound that is exciting in its desolation. Both Halo and Lopatin and Ferraro are in top shape as visionaries with their own, unique sound, which each of them is refining more with every record they release. I can't wait to see what will be next.