No: this is not an album about the Internet. Laurel Halo’s debut LP, Quarantine, is filled with solid electronic songs submerged into this murky, wormhole kind of vibe. There’s plenty of great, interesting synth sounds: warm, rounded, and slightly scratchy Casio arpeggios over a bed of gentle bases, twisting in tempo and curving with time. There’s the unsettling, sinister, almost demonic atmosphere of acts like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin. But what ultimately defines Laurel Halo’s sound on Quarantine is her droning, mantra-style vocals. Your feelings on the record begin and end with her voice, and I’m sorry to say this a good, moody electronic record marred by awful singing and lyrics. Tone annihilated.
Irritating snippets like “I will never see you again / You’re mad because I will not leave you alone” are belted out with the seriousness and solemnity of a shaman shouting over the Serenghetti. It doesn’t really matter if you have bad lyrics as long as you make up for it in vocal delivery and variety, but Halo’s monotone, pared with stuff you might hear coming out of a wasted candy kid’s mouth at Bonnaroo, just comes off as too silly to take seriously. Take someone like Liz Harris, aka Grouper: her setup/instrumentation is more or less the same as Halo’s: heavily effected keyboard/guitar carried by soaring, angelic vocals, heralding peace or anxiety at any moment. Grouper’s records and songs are beautiful examples of mood music—she conjures a very specific feeling of being lost, whether in the woods or in the middle of a big city. Her sounds are hazy and distorted as if we’re receiving them from a great distance, or through thick glass. And even though she is able to articulate these moods and textures really well, at the heart of her best work are beautiful melodies; the simple, world-less earwhigs that stick with you and leave an impression.
Quarantine is too intellectual for its own good. It tries to think its way through what it wants instead of just feeling it out. There’s no drift or sexiness to these songs; they’re as robotic and cold as the machines used. My biggest problem with Halo’s voice is its lack of variety. She sings at the same bellowing intensity every time, and it’s made no better by how dry and high in the mix the vocals are. Records like this should draw you in, but the sounds here are too familiar and the vocals too grating to pull you over the fence. There’s several beautifully bubbly and intoxicating loops scattered on songs like “Wow,” “Carcass,” and “MK Ultra” (the record, and this song in particular, is highly reminiscent of the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack—the cover art could easily be for an installment of Dot Hack). But it’s just as not as mystical as it’s made out to be.