(Hippos In Tanks)
director's cut, The Wire, August 2011
by Simon Reynolds
Laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between in the work of Fredric Jameson. But A Singular Modernity did elicit a chuckle from me – the laughter of uneasy self-recognition –with its characterization of the modernists as obsessed with “measurement”. Surveying the cultural landscape, fellows like Ezra Pound tabulated innovations levels, keeping inventory of “partial breakthroughs” and “intensities” that seemed to herald a new world.
The past decade has witnessed the steady incapacitation of this mode of assessing music. Just as linear directionality within culture has dissolved thanks to the internet’s effects on time and space, likewise it’s hard to locate a metric by which you could determine whether a particular artist or genre is more advanced than another. It was easier during the 1990s, at least within electronic dance music: change was felt viscerally, as an exponential rise in how challenging music was to dance to or simply withstand as a sonic onslaught. Beats got faster and more complex; bass grew gnarlier and heavier yet also more intricately molded and morphed. In the 2000s, this onward-and-outward drive gradually crumbled into the current swampy state of every-which-way: a hyperactive yet static end of history in which producers receive ovations for making records that sound like early 1990s House and ‘future garage’ is a two-steps back retreat to the skippy beats of 1999.
Atemporality, some folks call it. Yet it doesn’t have to be a predicament. Look at the way artists associated with the post-noise underground (the roster of Not Not Fun’s sub-label 100% Silk, for instance) offer an outsider’s take on dance music history, treating its archival deposits the same way they do New Age and 1980s ‘yacht rock’, as Play-Doh to be twisted into new shapes.
This is where Brooklyn’s Laurel Halo is coming from. Her music is neither referential nor reverential, but if you’ve listened to electronic music for a good while you will hear in her work a host of... let’s not say ghosts (there's nothing morbid or musty about Halo’s sound), let's say sprites: everyone from Ryuichi Sakomoto to Enya, Andreas Vollenweider to Danielle Dax, Ralph Lundsten to Laurie Spiegel. Specifically in dance terms, the feel is often undeniably early-to-mid 1990s: “Aquifer”, the opening track on the Hour Logic EP, had me flashing on Ken Ishii’s R&S releases, while elsewhere you might be minded of the early Black Dog, the young Carl Craig, or other producers who recorded for Kirk DeGiorgio's ART label.
Like these precursors Halo’s music finds the fine line between clubby floor-fodder and homebodied brain-food. What we have here isn’t so much Intelligent Dance Music, though, as Superfuckin’ Intellectual Dance Music. In interviews Halo discourses fluently about arcane concepts like ‘aural apophenia’ and ‘memory asymptotes’, while citing as inspirations everything from the Gnostic SF of Philip K Dick's VALIS to Hajime Sorayama’s super-realist soft porn. But Halo’s patter never seems willfully obscure or ostentatiously cerebral. It’s just a young, open mind looking for a harmonious connective logic to integrate all the things that arouse its curiosity, while also reaching for a language to describe and explain music whose operations and sensations are maddeningly resistant to verbalisation.
Hour Logic literally gives up on words: unlike last year’s song-and-lyric oriented King Felix, it’s almost completely vocal-free. “Constant Index” is the sole tune here that sticks with Felix’s 1980s 4AD vibe, which suggested an imaginary MARRS full-length with Colourbox calling on the blurry-voice talents of Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard. Throughout Hour Logic, there’s a feeling of panoply, a luscious and fragrant sensuousness. The title track is a little marvel of audio feng shui, balancing wide and warm horizons of synth-waft with a chalky-yet-fluorescent bassline, gossamer percussion, and pensive chords. On “Strength In Free Space”, textures fan out and shimmer like a peacock’s tail. "Speed of Rain" shifts back and forth between boombastic surges of breakbeat-like propulsion and lulls of cascading serenity, like a jogger in a Japanese garden repeatedly halting to admire a koi pond or waterfall. But the absolute stand-out piece, “Head”, leaves behind loveliness. A dislocated pulsebeat, like a trance drum-roll build plucked from context and stretched out into a long ribbon of rhythm, forms a sort of endlessly suspended climax. The music brims towards a singularity, an exquisite crisis: flanged sounds converge at a sort of three-dimensional crossroads, forming a helix of tones that hovers, plangently, before scattering in disarray.
“Head” and “Strength In Free Space” both recur on Antenna, a side dish to the main feast. Like Hour Logic, this tape is nearly the length of an LP. But the contents are less structured: swatches of fabric whose patterns are attractive but would be more impressive still if cut and styled into garments. There's a shitload of Ambient music and minimalist composition already extant in the world and Antenna sometimes recalls earlier efforts in an overcrowded field: Meredith Monk-like mouth music, with the milky, churning nebula that is “Impulse”, while “Dia Sapien” grinds and purrs like an offcut from Seefeel’s Quique, and “Zoo Hypothesis” could be “In Dark Trees (Coil’s Sidereal Vicious Mix)”. Best of the batch are “Heuristic Gag Factory” (Blade Runner re-scored by Monolake) and “Factory Reset” (a cat’s cradle of pitch-modulated vocal warbles/wobbles).
Sky and ocean are major inspirations for Halo, in particular notions of suspension, diving, and freefall. These sensations all have a blissful-yet-perturbing effect on one’s sense of orientation. Which has a certain resonance with the notion of atemporality: the archaic modernist impulse to ‘push things forward’ blocked by the impasse of ‘which way would that be, then?’ Halo is well aware of these issues, and has talked eloquently of a vague-ening of memory caused by our brains starting “to mimic our patterns of information retrieval and consumption on the Internet – to the point where... we move towards this eternal Present.” The upside is that “you can make all these interesting sounds out of this rubble of time quickening”.
A whole heap of futures have stacked up behind electronic dance and non-dance music across three or more decades of unrelenting advance. But rather than striving strenuously and futilely for some kind of alien beyond, or lapsing into wistful, epigonic classicism, Halo flicks through all these futures-past like the pages of a flip book. The result – if such a thing could still be measured – feels new and now.