Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan and now based in Los Angeles, Laurel Halo is a DJ, pianist, composer and a regular host on NTS radio. Since her 2012 début “Quarantine”, the electronic artist has been releasing albums that resist classification and which are deliberately not grounded in any particular genre. If her earlier pop or minimal techno-inflected releases featured beats and vocals, more recent records from “Raw Silk Uncut Wood” (2018) onwards gradually shift towards instrumental and experimental abstraction, vocal manipulations, ambient electronic, modern classical music and jazz improvisation.
2018 also saw Laurel Halo compose her first full-length film score with Dutch experimental documentary film-maker Rob Schröder’s “Possessed”. The score includes solo piano compositions performed by Laurel Halo herself as well as cello (Oliver Coates) and Galya Bisengalieva (violin).
Aggregating all these disparate influences into the first release on her own “Awe” recording label – which is also the name of her NTS show – Atlas (September 2023) is a radical recording intently designed as a discombobulating experience which makes for a surreal deep listening sound journey best enjoyed on headphones.
Awe is something you feel when confronted with forces beyond your control: nature, the cosmos, chaos, human error, hallucinations.
Starting with the cover artwork, the artist makes a point of “blurring” visual standards. The front cover picture is deliberately out of focus and one needs to rotate the back cover 180° to read the track listing for Side B and the credits.
This initial meddling with spatial awareness introduces a haunting musical score which also confuses traditional conventions associated with composition. While most modern ambient music releases will still feature at least a slow beat, a chord progression, a loop or a recurring pattern, Atlas is completely devoid of any recognisable time signature or melodic development, apart perhaps on the piano-led “Belleville”.
Relying extensively on orchestral Virtual Studio Technology, the record is a dizzying collage of field recordings, orchestral snippets from various instrument libraries and drone layers alongside processed acoustic instruments performed by choice guest musicians: experimental saxophonist Bendik Giske, cellist Lucy Railton, violinist James Underwood and Laurel Halo herself on piano. “Belleville” also features vocal harmonies by electronic musician and vocalist Coby Sey.
But what makes Atlas radically stand apart from contemporary ambient releases is the musician’s approach to composition. Laurel Halo stacks her strings, acoustic and vocal layers like a jazz musician and a modal improviser. It is interesting to note that the musician played keyboards on the 2021 electro-jazz release “Dissent” as part of the Berlin-based Moritz von Oswald trio. This also coincides with a pandemic-era period during which Laurel Halo reconnected with the piano through the prism of jazz theory. This improvisational approach resurfaces extensively throughout Atlas with repeated jazz chords punctuating “Abandon” for instance or a slightly dissonant piano on “Naked to the Light”.
Late Night Drive
And I had these various sets of night time imagery because often, when you are touring and traveling as a musician, you experience cities at night, imagery that you see, perhaps, when you’ve gotten off of a long shift at work. And it’s night, and it’s pouring rain, and a car goes by. And you see the reflection of the headlights in the wet pavement, or you see steam coming out of portholes.
As hinted perhaps by one song title, the eerie freeform textural improvisations on Atlas musically transposes this feeling of being on the move constantly as a jet-lagged working and performing musician. As well as that, having lived in New York and Berlin for long periods, Laurel Halo is after relocating to Los Angeles following short stints in London and Paris during the making of the album. The entire record plays like a never-ending “Late Night Drive” between airports or across various cities with the car windows opened, sometimes eavesdropping on other cars at traffic lights, taking in all the street noises and catching the music coming out of bars and clubs.
The distorted and twinkling piano notes scattered around the record or the wandering bass on the title track are the only elements anchoring the music in the real world. Like a musique concrète experiment whereby the musician is pointing a microphone while walking past orchestras rehearsing or tuning up in separate rooms inside a labyrinthic mansion, the 10 tracks on Atlas summon a collection of hallucinatory memories and dreams stitched together into one majestic continuous soundtrack.