“Quarantine”, Laurel Halo’s debut for Hyperdub, was one of the most polarising, uncompromising records of 2012, with its gruesome, weirdly vibrant hara-kiri cover art and themes of sensory deprivation and torture. Perhaps its divisiveness was partly due to its location at the precise intersection between pop and experimental – tense and uneasy, it made no concessions to either side. Halo’s raw vocal straddled the line between intimacy and awkwardness perfectly, slicing through the saturating wash of ambient electronics like tarnished piano wire, its dual strength and vulnerability the fulcrum around which the tracks hinged.
Where “Quarantine” was all ambient texture and queasy roughness, “Sunlight On the Faded” is altogether prettier, though equally confrontational in its own way. By contrast to the album, it’s beat-driven, Halo’s drum programming as intricate and sculptural as you would expect. Beautiful chords whirl around febrile, tightly woven drum patterns and rather than piercing through the noise, as on “Quarantine”, Halo’s vocal instead towers and cascades alongside them, her harmonies as jarringly expressive as ever. The lyrics aren’t wildly complicated, about how memories of things lost grow sweeter with the passage of time. But the unprocessed humanity of Halo’s harmonies, coupled with the electronic noise and gnarly drums, lend the lyrics a depth beyond their immediate import. As is often the case with vocalists, the delivery is more important than the content, and Halo, reliably, delivers – though whether you like her style is a matter of personal taste.
If it’s not your thing, you’ll prefer the labyrinthine B-side dub, which does away with the vocals. Weighted by a deep dub-techno throb, the B-side’s digital blips and burbles continue Halo’s preoccupation with the endless conflicts of the digital-bodily interface. Rather than the pop sensibility of the A-side, we have an atmospheric journey that veers from frenetic intensity to melancholic resignation, which, particularly when taken in the context of the original’s lyrics, resonates palpably with loss. The dub is more ominous and intense than the original, closer to the density of the album.
Thematically, we’re in slightly less doomed territory than in “Quarantine”, but the claustrophobia has only scarcely lifted. Finely balancing light and dark, synthetic and human, past and present, beauty and ugliness, Halo continues to make music that thrives on tension, yet finds a kind of synergistic resolution. It won’t hold your hand, but “Sunlight on the Faded” is richly rewarding, revealing something new with each successive listen, so that when Halo sings “I just want this on loop forever”, part of you can’t help but agree.
Laurel Halo’s “Sunlight on the Faded” is available on the 10th of December on Hyperdub.