Laurel Halo: Behind the Green Door, and the Conflicts of Live Performance

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Laurel Halo is seeking to make the live performance of music and the music recording process connect. After a string of EPs which initially saw her categorised as part of a lo-fi synth movement, released first over the internet, then via Hippos in Tanks – an L.A. based record label which has worked with artists including Gatekeeper, Nguzunguzu, and d’Eon (who released the split-EP Darkbloom with Grimes in 2011) – then via Hyperdub; several under her King Felix alias, which has served for her more dance-oriented productions; Halo released her debut full-length, Quarantine, via Hyperdub last year.

Quarantine was one of the year’s most engaging and acclaimed releases. For the first time, it saw Halo’s voice at the forefront of her music; coming through amidst a dense soundscape drawing from musique concrète, industrial music, dance, pop, and world music, utilising white noise and assorted samples, drum loops, and synths which both play on the surface of compositions and drone in their background. Halo’s voice, often unprocessed, emerges both readily and abrasively in these songs: she has said she wanted her vocals to sound ‘ugly and crisp’.

This juxtaposition of her voice with her music has seen the album often posited as an exploration of debates concerning technology vs. humanity; or characterised as a sort of musical science-fiction, viewing a dystopian or post-utopian future. Over the repeated listens which the record demands, the juxtaposition comes to feel less of a statement, more of a synthesis: a provocative yet convincing, living combination of the digital and material and psychological facets which comprise our world today.

In Quarantine‘s opening song, ‘Airsick’, Halo sings ‘In the instant you know the feeling of time passing/The line continues to take itself and draw’, and repeats ‘Travelling heart don’t go away’. In its closer, ‘Light + Space’, she sings ‘Words are just words/Word are just words/That you soon forget/Machine stays/Machine stays an empty silhouette’. The former lines indicate something of the nature of Halo’s music: constantly travelling, ceaselessly experimental, she has previously suggested ‘I’m pretty sure that my music will remain in flux’. The latter lyrics – in exposing the insufficiency of words – may be taken to imply the course which Halo has taken since Quarantine was released just over a year ago.

Even when touring in the immediate aftermath of that album, and despite the protestations of promoters, Halo typically only sang a couple of Quarantine‘s songs live. In several interviews – notably with The Quietus last October, during a European tour; and with Spin in April – she has expressed her unease at live singing. This extends beyond a simple discomfit over holding a microphone. In the Quietus piece, she portrays her live performances as fundamentally rhythmic and improvisational, in contrast to the meticulous recording process which resulted in Quarantine. More, stating that the lyrics from Quarantine ‘came from a hard place’, Halo depicts the process of singing as one that involves immersion in old feelings, reinforcing emotions and thought patterns rather than cleansing them.

It is rare to witness an artist using their own voice for the sake of discord, challenging the audience rather than providing a point of connection with them; and it is interesting to hear an artist describe the process of singing as jarring and restricting rather than cathartic. The broader sense Halo gives of the discrepancy between live performance and recording is one echoed by other artists. Grimes, for instance, has depicted  last year’s Visions as a cathartic record to make, allowing her to work through aspects of her past. Yet – after recording it in an intense and intensive three-week period in August 2011, then delaying its release upon signing with 4AD – she has also expressed ambivalence at having to perform live a work that feels so much part of a previous moment.

Animal Collective have frequently subverted this routine process of creating an album, then touring on the back of it. They have often used live performances for working out new material, rather than for recapitulating old. This has been partly a necessity borne of the member’s other commitments and their living apart: the precious time spent together touring has been taken and used productively towards new works. It also reflects the experimental nature of the group. Having worked in this way for a few records, for last year’s Centipede Hz, the four members of the group returned to their hometown of Baltimore for three months, coming together in the studio each day to diligently create their album.

Laurel Halo supported Animal Collective for a few dates in Europe last week; Halo prefacing the collaboration by expressing on Twitter that ‘Sung Tongs shattered my 2004 brain’. The pairing performed at the Melkweg in Amsterdam last Monday. Halo has a strong and distinctive interest in visuals: Quarantine featured a work by Japanese artist Makoto Aida as its cover; and her European tour last autumn saw her playing with visuals by the musician, graphical artist and animator Tom Scholefield (who goes by the alias Konx-Om-Pax). At the Melkweg, under jagged, changing lights, Halo performed an exciting set demonstrative of the developing harmony between her live outlook and her recording practices.

Over the past year, Halo has stopped singing live entirely. She has also foregone her laptop, and instead of programming music to be performed on stage she improvises using only hardware: an MPC, Machinedrum, a synthesizer, and effects pedals. This process and this sound has resulted in a new EP, Behind the Green Door, released a couple of weeks ago: an instrumental record which harks back to 2011’s Hour Logic EP, and which retains Quarantine‘s thick percussion and oppressive and disorientating atmosphere, but on which the prevailing darkness has lifted somewhat; the record is more drivingly rhythmic, with Halo herself emphasising its ‘sexual energy’.

‘Throw’, the EP’s opener, utilises an out-of-tune piano, which Halo played and recorded in London and looped for the track. ‘Throw’ appeared during and was one of the standouts of Halo’s absorbing, cohesive Melkweg performance. On ‘UHFFO’ electronic frequencies, dial tones and industrial sounds move between a recurring, propelling jungle beat. ‘NOYFB’ features bursts of white noise over a stuttering bass rhythm. The steady beat with which ‘Sex Mission’ begins opens into an overlapping, breathy but constrained sample, emerging synths, and clattering percussion; the beat resumes, and chemical sounds squelch back and forth, swooping off in a movement before the track fades out.

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Behind the Green Door is out now, released 21 May via Hyperdub; while a new Animal Collective EP, Monkey Been to Burntown – a companion to Centipede Hz; featuring reworkings by Teengirl Fantasy and Shabazz Palaces among others – is released this week.