Across the dozen-or-so years that Laurel Halo has been releasing music, she has moved around from New York to Berlin to Los Angeles, with some decent time spent in London – the home of her former label Hyperdub. Her musical output has varied just as much, from techno to vocal manipulations to sample-heavy avant pop to eerie ambient. Her latest, Atlas, continues this trend of voyaging into pastures new by presenting a haunted orchestral work with jazz inflections.
It’s easy to label Atlas ‘ambient’, but there are voices amidst the myriad layers, and the way Halo has arranged and dispatched the various tones gives it more of a direction than most music in that field. It is true you can very easily lose orientation amidst the billowing clouds and beatless productions (which makes the title Atlas seem ironic) but that only compels you to venture further, to learn the album’s unseeable contours.
The book-ending tracks to Halo’s 2018 album Raw Silk Uncut Wood are a precursor to this record, but those tracks seemed more lonesome and tactile than the work here. In fact, tactility has often been a facet of Halo’s work, but Atlas does away with that entirely, instead presenting metaphysical and inchoate shapes that seem to dissolve when you approach.
It starts with “Abandon”, a track that features contributions from saxophonist Bendik Giske, cellist Lucy Railton and violinist James Underwood (the latter two feature across most of the record). Despite the communal effort, there is no doubting that “Abandon” is Halo’s work – the various strands of instrumentation are all present but muddied and blurred to her tastes, bound together by an invisible string of synth and sound manipulation. It sounds like setting off on an ocean liner in the night while an orchestra plays from beneath the waves, distant and haunting.
This is a mood and tone that persists throughout Atlas, Halo’s grip on the work undeniably firm despite the looseness of the sound. Lattices of strings seem to rise in and out of earshot at whim – but the whim is clearly hers and she’s arranged them all delicately but precisely. Second track “Naked To The Light” brings another key element to the mix: Halo’s piano playing. Her instrument is similarly in-and-out of this sound world, but it appears with more clarity than most of the other tones here. Halo finds an unseen slipstream among the currents of her shapeshifting creations and lets fragments of piano glide through it. The title track may be the pinnacle, with the strings and the piano sweetly sawing across each other time and again before diverting down into the misty undercurrent, only to then rise and crest on the surface once more. It’s like watching a tank full of mesmerizing fish darting around in slow motion, blurring together into a mess of shapes but each finding a moment to appear crisply before your eyes in their full glory.
Another highlight is “Late Night Drive”, where the strings are treated in a way that at times makes them sound like screeching brakes, but in a moment they change direction and flash in a silvery light, a gorgeous specter appearing out of the doldrums. This is something that recurs throughout the album – atmospherically echoing clanks suddenly morphing into breathtaking passages of strings – but it never loses its power, mostly due to how singular and unpredictable it is. The slow roll of “Reading The Air” exploits this to the maximum, with violins quietly shrieking before boldly singing through the murk. It’s not unlike Basinski’s Disintegration Loops in the way that just when you think everything is drifting into decay a sudden ribbon of light breaks through and resets the image to something indefinable but breathtaking.
Disembodied voices are also a spice that Halo adds to the mix. A female voice – presumably her own – wafts up out of the deep on “Late Night Drive” so naturally and unsuspectingly that at first it is easy to miss it. On the following “Sick Eros” that voice remains lurking at the bottom of the song, mostly obscured by other wafts of instrumentation, but still perceptible in moments when the clouds part. On “Belleville”, Coby Sey’s velveteen tones are heard, but only for a mere bar or so. Using this wonderful voice so sparingly is proof, if it was needed, that every single little element of Atlas has been precisely hewed and put together by Halo in a way that she envisioned – everything is utilised exactly how she wanted it to be.
Two other standouts from the album come in the form of “Sweat, Tears or the Sea” and “You Burn Me”, where it’s simply Halo, her piano and some digital manipulation. Her playing ebbs towards jazz, like a lone player in an empty dive bar, but her subtle loops and echoes make the melodies seem vibrant, more important, reaching up to the heavens. In these moments it feels like everything recedes and we can see her hunched over her instrument, the wizard suddenly revealed from behind the curtain of sound she has draped across Atlas.
She drops us back home with the closing track “Earthbound”. Strident beams of strings and the returning tones of Giske’s saxophone herald the view of land ahead. There is no spectacular finale, but a subtle relaxation of all the elements, back to peace. It’s the sound of Halo setting down her tools, letting everything trail off into the ether and stepping back to admire the subtle sonic sculpture she has created. It’s impossible to trace, but it’s exactly what she envisioned.