‘Words are just words that you soon forget,’ sings Laurel Halo on the closing track of her debut full-length, which seems to undermine all that has gone before. For there are quite a lot of words on this record – a surprising amount for an artist whose work had been predominantly instrumental to this point – and they are clearly here for a reason. This isn’t a stylistic volte-face in the manner of James Blake, though, for Quarantine sticks in similar territory to Halo’s previous work; she hasn’t suddenly decided she wants to be a ‘proper’ songwriter or anything, just that instrumental music alone might not convey all she wants to communicate. So it’s time to grab a pen and paper and plug that microphone in.
But it’s not merely what Halo is singing but how she’s communicating. The opening “Airsick” with its billowing drums and an atmospheric coda places Quarantine in the vicinity of the work of Tujiko Noriko, which is, on the whole, a good thing; in keeping with the Paris-based Japanese artist, Halo’s work is both experimental and accessible. However, the second track, “Years” is altogether more challenging. Over a chiming, glinting synth bed, a choir of Laurels declaim the brief lyric; it’s weirdly off-kilter throughout and the vocals are brittle and hard-edged in contrast to the softer singing on “Airsick”. So Halo chooses a voice that suits the song, rather than sticking with the same old boring vocal technique of sounding the same from track to track that the majority of singers utilise. It’s a refreshing idea but some of Halo’s voices tend to grate somewhat and that renders the album more of a mixed bag than one might expect.
There are plenty of instrumental – at least, non-lyrical – passages for those unsure of the new sound of Halo. “Joy” and the brief “Wow” sit comfortably next to anything Laurel’s released in the past, and when the character of her voice matches the song itself, all is well; “Carcass” has a throbbing, industrial feel to it and the shrill singing fits in… well, the effect is suitably unnerving. But that’s presumably the desired result for a track called “Carcass” on a record whose sleeve is of Japanese schoolgirls slicing themselves up with swords.
Quarantine is, at no stage, an easy listen; this is an album to keep the audience on their toes with even the softer moments often merely preludes to a shard of destabilising vocals. But arguably the role of art is to challenge, to keep the listener out of their comfort zones, to keep pushing at the boundaries. This is probably one of the more divisive albums of the year – even those who have enjoyed Halo’s other work may find this a touch too awkward for their tastes. Others will find it easy to admire but hard to love. It may take multiple listens before one is finally in tune with Quarantine, but it’s not album you will soon forget. (Jeremy Bye)