(In this second installment of our artist discussion feature, Alexander, Danny, and Steve convened once again to discuss the work of Laurel Halo. We discuss Halo's unique approach to vocals, the unfortunate level of complacency in bedroom recordings, and the beauty of her work below.)
ALEXANDER BORG: In electronic music more than other genre, artists have absolute manipulative control over every element of their music. While rock guitarists are certainly able to dial in their desired guitar tone through effects pedals and studio magic, the tools intrinsic to the creation of electronic music allow artists to shape and alter every square wave, sample, and drum kit with an unmatched level of detail.
Brooklyn-based ambient pop experimentalist Ina Cube (better known by her nom de guerre Laurel Halo) takes on an oddly laissez-faire approach to one very crucial element to her music. Her unaltered and unadorned vocals are at the forefront of her music, often times overpowering her carefully layered electronic accompaniment and sometimes very noticeably off key.
Let's begin this discussion with the following: What does Laurel Halo's bold juxtaposition of unbridled vocals and calculated electronics do for you as a listener and are the imperfections of her vocals ultimately their greatest strength?
DANNY SPITERI JR.: In an age in which the D.I.Y. aesthetic of "bedroom pop" is so rampant, I find it quite refreshing to hear Laurel place her voice so unashamedly at the front of the mix. Contrasting the multitude of modern independent pop artists who bury their vocals behind walls of instrumentation and/or obscure them with heavy use of reverb or other effects, the nakedness of Laurel's voice allows her personality to have an undeniably strong presence. Between this and her highly personal lyrics, Laurel achieves a sense of honesty that I often miss in her contemporaries.
It is especially interesting to compare Quarantine to Laurel's past work, which saw her taking a less raw approach to her vocals. Releases such as 2010's King Felix and last year's Hour Logic EPs depicted her voice in a much more ethereal light, whereas the Spring EP she released under her King Felix moniker earlier this year was devoid of it entirely. Although the faults in Laurel's vocals were less apparent on those releases, I prefer the element of intimacy they create on Quarantine.
STEVE JONES: It's not the imperfections themselves but their presentation that strengthens Quarantine. A good artist is one who knows how to utilize their idiosyncrasies to their advantage. Laurel Halo's voice is not going to win any American Idol contests, but she knows that, and she knows how to create music which captivates. Dissonance is just as important as assonance in this regard, if not more so. Dissonance creates tension; it instills a desire for resolution, and as such functions to capture the listener's attention and hook them. It requires a delicate balance to be sure, but I'd wager that even people who didn't like this album still remember it with marked clarity.
I love confidence of her voice, and honestly it is not anywhere near as off-key and off-kilter as some of the claims I've heard. I think it falls quite neatly into that aforementioned balance between dissonance and assonance. I also love that when voice manipulation is applied in "Carcass" it doesn't dress up the sound but rather strips it even further with sharp teeth and bloody rags. Additionally, I have to imagine that "Years" was written as a preemptive "fuck you" towards the listeners and critics who would complain about her voice. The electronics in it are largely incidental, and it's the multiple layers of her singing that drive the song. You can even hear her strain her voice into her lowest registers, which is maybe grating for some, but haunting to me.
Quarantine isn't an album of conventional beauty, but it is still a beautiful album. It has the wild beauty of a poisonous snake slithering colorfully along the ground, or a blood-maned lion chasing prey on the bright savannah. There's enough talent behind the instrumentals that this would have been a good album regardless of the other choices, but it's Laurel Halo's strong voice that elevates it from good to great, from interesting to remarkable.
ALEXANDER: I couldn't agree more with your point regarding assonance and dissonance, Steve. While I love the genre, I feel like so many ambient releases are content to simply sound pretty but devoid of anything that provides contrast, memorability, or originality. Quarantine would still be an enjoyable album had Laurel Halo chosen not to include her vocals but the juxtaposition they provide and the personality they convey make the record great. The contrast between Laurel Halo's otherworldly soundscapes and her confident voice creates a sort of distressing yet infinitely intriguing effect.
In fact, I would say feelings of anxiety and distress are the central themes of Quarantine. With song titles like "Airsick," (which reminds me of Radiohead's similarly themed record, The Bends) "Carcass," and "Tumor," the gorgeously disturbed album art of Japanese school girls committing suicide, the way Halo's vocals seem as if they're trying to escape from some negative force, and the title of the album itself, the record just oozes a vibe of unbearable containment.
DANNY: Indeed, ambient music that is too safe for its own good seems to be in overabundance. Laurel's use of her voice as a means of establishing dissonance and contrast reminds me of the way an artist like Tim Hecker uses distortion and feedback to create a sense of unease that is generally not present in ambient music. Both his music and Quarantine are not without an inherent sense of beauty, but each possess a use of challenging elements which lend that beauty its dynamic, its personality, and ultimately, its memorability.
I find the unsettling nature of the vocals, however, to be about as important to the record as the allure of the electronics. To put it simply, I would go as far as to call them one of 2012's finest displays in production chops so far. It's rare that a record can so convincingly take me out of whatever setting surrounds me as I listen to it and place me into its own world, but from the moment Quarantine begins to its final seconds, it does exactly that. The bleeping synthesizers, deep, pulsing percussion, and cerebral atmospherics that back these tracks manage to feel both mechanical and colorful, painting imagery with precision as vivid as the stunning album art.
That album cover hits me not only as an apt analogy for the character of the instrumentation, but also as a perfect representation of Quarantine as a whole. In the foreground is the trio of Japanese schoolgirls performing harakiri, imagery that is simultaneously attractive and moderately gruesome, which is laid against the detailed and grid-like backdrop. The relationship between the polarizing appeal of the former and the robotic yet somewhat inviting makeup of the latter bears a striking resemblance to that of Laurel's voice and her electronic accompaniment.
STEVE: This is a beautiful album in the same way that I find Salvador Dali's paintings beautiful, or that I find a film like Eraserhead beautiful. It's not the most conventional beauty, sure, but there's so much of that conventional shit (shit I enjoy and don't enjoy) already saturating the internet waves. I heard in Quarantine a rush of fresh air and sounds. And I don't want to belabor the point of her voice too much, because in all honesty I think her voice and intonation are fine. She isn't pitch-perfect, but I think listeners making a big deal out of her performance are big babies. I'd much rather have a vocalist lay out their weaknesses instead of lathering on so many effects that the voice loses all personality and sounds even shittier in a live setting. Laurel Halo's voice is perfect for her music, and that's the way it should be.
What are your favorite tracks/moments in the album? I'm curious to see how we match up.
ALEXANDER: My favorite moments off Quarantine are the moments where Halo's incredibly expressive voice and inventive sonic palette culminate to form something complex and otherworldly but still emotionally resonant.
The track "Thaw" opens with the ghostly whaling of a distant synthesizer and is appropriately followed by an ominous death knell, giving the song a monolithic sense of gravitas. Then Halo's voice enters, accompanied by what sounds like pulsating, distorted puffs of air and an apocalyptic synth melody. Halo's lyrics speak of approaching dark forces and "forward motion being the only option" which instill into my very being a powerful sense of paranoia and dread.
One of my other favorite tracks off Quarantine is the opener, "Airsick." I simply adore how Halo arranges and mixes the instrumentation of this track. Bubbling synths from the bottom of the Marianas trench, layers of droning, rumbling noise, and a manipulated piano sting sort of orbit around the listener, all to great effect. Halo's mantra of "Traveling far / Don't go away" at the core of this song is also worthy of note. The way she repeats the line sort of seems as if she's pleading to the traveler despite her tone not indicating any degree of desperation. While the listener doesn't receive any closure to this narrative, they are awarded with a beautiful, ambient conclusion. A conclusion that is but one of the many astoundingly beautiful moments on this record.
DANNY: "Carcass," as Steve previously mentioned, stands out for its unrestrained treatment of Laurel's vocals. Although I wouldn't necessarily promise this alternate quality to relieve listeners who have reservations about Laurel's voice normally, I find that it provides some of the most thrilling moments on the record.
"Wow," despite its rather short length, is another of my favorite songs on Quarantine. The wall of wordless vocal harmonies translates into unspeakable bliss, and the way they gracefully swell in volume feels especially euphoric.
"Holoday" is another brief track, yet also one that stands out to me. I love the way the vocal samples that exclaim "just wanna be with you!" are sporadically repeated in a seemingly random rhythmic pattern. Their juxtaposition against the jaggedly edited clips of what I assume are Laurel's treated vocals is particularly powerful.
Lastly, "Light + Space," though one of the most sparse tracks on the album, is also among those that resonate emotionally with me most. Its relatively simplistic sonic approach allows the melodies, which I feel are some of the most potent Quarantine has to offer, to truly shine, and the use of vocal harmonies makes for a remarkably cathartic chorus.
STEVE: "Carcass" is easily my favorite. I love the contrast between the heavy bass sounds of the instrumental and the electronically addled shrieking of Laurel Halo's voice. I think "Years" might have been the song that turned many listeners off the album, but after hearing that track I knew that Quarantine would be sticking with me for quite a while. There's something mesmerizing and melancholic about the way she layers her voice, and it emphasizes a lot of the previously mentioned points that make this record such a unique listen. "Nerve" also highlights just how fantastic her production is, and even though it's an instrumental it is one of the most stirring tracks. Finally, "Light + Space" wins for prettiest song. After an album filled with really dark themes and sounds, it's a bright bit of respite, functioning as a perfect closer.