Laurel Halo-DJ Kicks: Album Review

Laurel Halo’s DJ Kicks set twists and winds to its conclusions. Though at first glance feeling like one stroke of a giant paint brush, the work has certain fulcrums that keep the energy feeling fresh. Between the driving leads of Red Axe’s “5 Min,” and the raw textures of “Ana,” for instance, Halo pulls us through the pristine sheen of “Puro Rosaceaes,” the subtle cascade of “Cricoid Pressure,” and the oddball vocals of “Just Made Some Jazz Music.” Tunes like “Penny Rut” and “Canto” again calm things down before the pointed rhythms of “The Light Within You” creep through the hazy cloud of “Poliwhirl.” These type of back and forth twists make the set expertly cohesive and engaging without ever really breaking Halo’s minimalist leanings.

The middle of the work maybe begins to break into more extremeties to an extent—there’s not really a dip in energy between say “Lachowa” and “Violent Light”—but Halo’s liquid smolder somehow encompasses every bit of the thing, always feeling touched by her ears.

The set’s sound strikes much of the same modernism as much of Halo’s music. It’s the minimal sound of Berlin, but it also recalls jungle in it’s dark tones and unpredictable rhythms—not to mention Halo’s nods to Jazz and Contemporary Classical music, which are less obvious here, but still sitting in the background as heard on the string flourish of “Brian’s Having a Party.”. Overall the work is another welcome reflection of the world that Halo’s built, it’s perhaps not the crown jewel, but DJ sets are another key component to her vision—definitely worth listening in.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Lotic-Power: Album Review

I’m always interested in how electronic musicians insert humanity into their mix.  There’s space for pure militancy in the minimal techno of Robert Hood or Studio One, but the best IDM cats always knew how to craft a good melody, and DJ Shadow’s lust for analog gives him his undying psychedelic appeal.

Today’s moment sees a lot of artists clashing the electronic and human elements into a more blurred mix, a texture making the divide between electronic drive and melodic/vocal work inseparable.  Along with the likes of FKA Twigs, Arca, or even Death Grips, Lotic falls into this categorization, crafting a world that is at once viciously inhuman and fully alive.

“Hunted” enters with a whisper: “brown skin masculine frame, heads a target/Actin’ real feminine, make em’ vomit.”  In a world where femininity and black masculinity are both frowned upon, I’m sure one can feel like a whisper among caustic electronic violence when walking down the street.  Aside from that juxtaposition, the music also incorporates eerie vocal oohs that are matched by plucked keyboard sounds and broken up by bubbling artificial bass pulses.  Another aspect of queerness is how one feels like the world is just built differently from them so this blurring of electronics and vocals also reads into that feeling as the human opening erodes into something other.

Towards the end of “Bulletproof,” the vocals are doubled with one take deep in Lotic’s range and lightly auto-tuned, “I’m a bulletproof ni**a,” again blurring the space.  The title track opens with shimmering electronics, before disruption in the form of a drum sample—perhaps a bit further removed from a specifically human feel, but still in the vein of colliding worlds.

Power isn’t quite like Laurel Halo’s obsessive recalculation of the human voice Dust, however, the work shatters song-form, colliding artificiality and human touch to capture the violent erosion of feeling other.

-Donovan Burtan 8/10

Laurel Halo-Dust: ALBUM REVIEW

“What’s In my Bag?” can go a lot of ways, many of them rather inconclusive—New Order bought a Lady Gaga remix album for a daughter, Lightning Bolt seemingly bought a bunch of random shit with cool covers, and Krist Novoselic was included for some reason.  In the case of Laurel Halo, however, the results are telling.  Citing a rather misfit bag of avant-weirdoes—cult figure Father Yod turned out to be an interesting Wikipedia search seeing as he died by hang-gliding accident “despite having no previous hang-gliding experience”—Halo illuminates the loose rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of her latest album “Dust.”

Artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Henry Flint only sidestep typical song-form and allow for jarring cuts in the program and the blurring of rhythmic structures as their acoustic collages fly through space.  Halo fascinatingly places this ideology through an electronic music lens with tunes that throw together sketches of club beats and dive into complete abstraction in seemingly the same breath.

Although a hyperdub signee, Halo’s beats aren’t the straightforward, dance-able type.  On the opening cut, sparse bass lines juggle non-militant snares as her slightly juxtaposed vocal lines clash over top.  “Jelly” incorporates odd surface sounds that almost sound like taking a bite out of an apple.  The mid-range again is disorienting as a reliable, but disjointed bass sound rumbles beneath.  Perhaps the catchiest moment comes on “Moontalk” with the dazzling sounding sample and the fluid vocal lines, but overall Halo leaves you in a sort of liquid space not entirely dedicated to dance or abstraction.

The shorter cuts amplify this.  As “Jelly” reaches its space-bound completion, “Koinos” centers odd ball rhythmic motions around a subtle, looping melodic device.  Then wildly pitch-shifted vocals come through, adding to the hypnotic disorientation.  “Nicht Ohne Risiko” is a jolting mix of angles as textures bathe between the minimal “Who Won?” and the album’s closest pop moment.  Somehow, Halo never loses momentum on the album, but these tracks certainly pull the concept of time into a lot of different zones.

Halo’s lyrical sense is appropriately odd and occasionally charming. “You don’t meet my idol standards for a friend” charismatically bounces out on “Jelly.”  “Who Won?” throws together some masterful political undertones as saxophones wander over top: “what’s the password…the house is very big I only have five dollars.”  “syzygy” remains equally vague as Halo paints a despondent scene to complement her sonic gloom: “I was in a dead devil’s car she said get ready I turned my eyes away and she release an evil laugh…I said get up, I said tough love.”

On the other hand, Halo does tend to sneak up on her listener, which accomplishes an addicting aura as her collage somehow coalesces into one entity.  As the despondence develops on the six-minute burn “syzygy,” that “tough love” couplet becomes a kind of hook with a lushness gradually building up with each passing repetition. “Do U Ever Happen” follows with rumbling undertones that eventually turn to late night synthy glory with layers of soulful earnesty.

Halo’s sonic world is wholly unique and her understanding of past avant-garde endeavors seems to drive her aesthetic ideology, making for an album equal parts out and slow burn.  It won’t make sense on first listen, but you’ll come right back.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Miwon-Jigsawtooth: Album Review

After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities.  True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.

The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone.  Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.

The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project.  Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top.  This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.

“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work.  Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song.  “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.

“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness.  The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama.  “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.

Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work.  Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project.  If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.

There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Astvaldur-At Least: Album Review

On his debut record At Least, Icelandic producer Astvaldur paints a grim industrial picture that never really reaches the level of violence that the anticipatory tones allude to.  Instead, the tunes play with the listener’s ear, holding a cloud of approaching danger over every musical decision.  Aesthetically, the work features constantly shifting sands that pass key musical themes and motives through different contexts and instrumentations.  To some degree this results in a bit of a mixed bag as it can a bit difficult to grasp the individual songs, however, the variety of sounds presented makes for striking textural explorations and an especially dynamic overall sonic portrait.

“Hark” kicks things off with an almost incomplete sounding rhythmic motive that obsessively repeats itself.  Following the anxious pulses that begin the track, the motive is first uttered in the high range by this icy keyboard sound, before getting transferred to a more mellow instrumental sound.  Tense machinery sounds surround the action constantly from metallic quarter notes to more pressing, arpeggiating synths.  This track perfectly exemplifies the anticipatory nature of many of the tracks on this album.  The whole thing feels like a build-up, making for an almost off-putting emotional affect as we’re never treated to a stagnant dance beat.

Following is “Rotary Credo” with a more acoustic-sounding opening provided by circulating violin samples.  Popping surface noise enters, serving a bit of a rhythmic function as tense countermelodies building up the anxious nature of the track.  Here, we get an example of Astvaldur’s skill of changing the context of a melody.  At the beginning of the track, the aesthetic is especially human-sounding, but by the end the song is more metallic and sterile.  Rather than building layers and layers in a traditional dance way, the track takes one set-up and puts it through a different lens.

“Flesh” is perhaps the most traditionally contrived song structure.  Opening with non-specific robotics, the track eventually dives into an almost hand-drum patterns with quick, subdued rhythmic sounds.  This becomes the foundation for the track as sweeping electric sounds develop over top serving a quasi-melodic role.  Still, there’s a bit of a detached mood to the track, but this would probably be the tune most worthy for the trance/dance setting.

The last major accomplishment of the record is probably the intriguing textures that Astvaldur is able to put together.  This is something that’s achieved over the course of the whole picture.  It’s not just that Astvaldur achieves a unique sound-space and works with it on each track, it’s moreso that he’s consistently able to offer new musical findings.  From the scratchy acoustics of the beginning of “Rotary Credo” to the swirling candy of “Mother” that gets bottomed out by pressing piano pulses and even the plucked electronics of “Punture”, At Least proves that Astvaldur’s bag of sounds is especially large and unique.

At seven tracks, the album is certainly a quick listen and the slight lack of standout singles makes it a bit forgettable.  In the future, it would probably be best for Astvaldur to focus his energy on structured pieces, but his ability to play with anticipation and conjure unique sonic spaces is clear and his work could offer a nice balance between dance-able and violent experimentation with a bit more focus on songwriting down the road.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10