Missy Mazzoli is a composer and a founding member of the band Victoire. Recent projects include works for the Kronos Quartet and the Detroit Symphony, and operas about the life of Isabelle Eberhardt (Song from the Uproar) and Lot’s wife (SALT). She lives in Brooklyn. You can visit her on Twitter here or visit Victoire here.
After listening to Laurel Halo’s new album Chance of Rain for the fourth time, I’m left with an impression that is more visual than aural, a feeling of being caught in a beautiful mix of the straight and the curved. At its best, Halo’s new tracks are an enveloping combination of the linearity of dance music and the undulating, organic lines of experimental electronica, noise, and something I can only call “the Joy of the ’90s.” (More on that later…) This is music you can dance to, music that makes you want to move, but it has a distinctly human thumbprint throughout. There’s a pervasive undercurrent of spontaneity and joy that sometimes bubbles to the surface and sometimes remains barely audible. This is music that seems to be constantly going somewhere. Halo moves us steadily from texture to texture, often breaking off a beat or a drone to move starkly to something completely new. It feels courageous and fresh.
Early press for this record cites Detroit techno, and Halo does indeed seem to draw on the sparse, confrontational beats that came out of the Motor City in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But she manages to touch on the industrial without being bleak; there is lightness and buoyancy to varying degrees in each of these tracks, which are often replete with washy harmonies and melodies that are almost jazzy. There is something nostalgic about these moments that makes me think of the ’90s; they create a lighthearted, relaxed vibe that we really don’t find on either side of that decade. She takes it to an extreme in the opening and closing tracks of the album, “Dr. Echt” and “–Out,” which sound like improvisations on the keyboard. While these tracks are a little too noodly and unformed in the context of an otherwise well constructed whole, there is something refreshing in their simplicity. They have frayed, staticky edges, and “Dr. Echt” dissolves into a gorgeous low drone that launches us into the album.
What really separates Halo from the Detroit scene is her inventive approach to structure and form. She lulls us into a trance only to cut off hypnotic drum tracks at jarring times. She adds layers of seemingly disparate material in surprising, interocking rhythms. She breaks from the grid in a refreshing way. There are a few moments when I feel like I can hear the cut-and-paste behind the music, where samples gets stuck in a loop for a little too long, stalling the addictive forward momentum of the album, but these moments are eclipsed by the imaginative forces at play.
At my record label New Amsterdam, we often talk about successful albums as the “new symphonies” — music that can be heard as one large piece, or just as successfully as individual tracks. (Composer Judd Greenstein deserves credit for originating this idea; thank you, Judd!) Chance of Rain often feels to me like just a such a “new symphony,” a bold, monolithic statement with its own overarching form. It grows out of the jazzy introductory track to deliciously scratchy high sounds over a fuzzy low pulse in “Oneiroi,” into the beautifully sparse textures slowly enveloped in drones in “Serendip.” One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Serendip” is full of unexpected moments — weirdly syncopated beats, lines that stretch and bend languidly, all of it ending in a lopsided beat that fades out ever so slowly. Halfway through the album, in the beautiful “Melt,” Halo abandons the throbbing bass for an almost musique-concrète style collage, like the soundtrack to a newly unearthed Stan Brakhage film or a ’50s-era documentary about traffic patterns in New York City. We rest for a moment in this track before springing back, seemingly without pause, into Halo’s chaotic swirl of beats, launching us through the rest of the album.
Sometimes these tracks get lost in the whole; I found myself wishing each track had a more distinct identity. The songs on Halo’s earlier album, last year’s Quarantine, are memorable as individual tracks, and had a wider range sonically and emotionally. I also have to admit that I miss her singing voice, a nakedly honest element that would have added a more personal stamp to these tracks. Those tiny criticisms aside, Chance of Rain is a courageous, joyful, original statement from an artist who is unafraid to walk, run and dance in wildly new directions. I can’t wait to hear what she does next, and that’s always a really good sign.