Hyperdub

Hyperdub can’t claim sole responsibility for every major development in early 21st century dance music, but you wouldn’t be entirely wrong if they came to mind first. A generation after “Metal” Mike Saunders and Patti Smith made the rock-critic-to-punk musician jump, Glasgow-based musical theorist and UK dance fanatic Steve Goodman pulled off the post-rave equivalent, building off the cachet of his webzine to start a label of the same name. He’d helm the first two releases under the name Kode9 in 2004, singles featuring vocals credited initially to Daddi Gee and later retconned to reflect Gee’s more well-known alias The Spaceape. And the standard was set with the first entry in the Hyperdub catalog, that being the duo’s panic-pulsing, brink-of-annihilation uber-dub deconstruction of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” — which sounded like Linton Kwesi Johnson intoning apocalyptic poetry over a King Tubby transmission from the void — backed by a track called “Stalker” where the sprightly rhythms of 2-step were pushed into exclamatory, corroded-sounding blunt-force impacts and chemically washed in an intangible dread. It was a good way to pose the question: how harsh and spare and uncompromisingly dark can you make a record in the burgeoning post-2-step sound, and still give it the kind of essential pulse that keeps dancefloor dynamics exciting? If those early Kode9 + the Spaceape singles weren’t enough of an answer, Burial would provide the Q.E.D., striking with a devastatingly affecting yet rhythmically propulsive style that made him the first favorite dubstep artist of millions of listeners — many of whom couldn’t tell a Skream from a Benga.

While the label’s first few years felt autonomous to the point of near-insularity, that would change quickly. Sure, the core that carried the label for its first few years was so tight and so reliant on a handful of emerging artists — the aforementioned Burial and Kode9 + the Spaceape; grime-conversant crew L.V.; glitch-bass noisemakers Darkstar; the wonky mutations of Ikonika; Tokyo-based chiptune dubstepper Quarta330 — that the label’s fifth anniversary compilation 5 wound up bringing in label-unaffiliated peers like Flying Lotus, Martyn, and Joker to flesh it out. But that was a good omen, as it provided the kind of co-signs that broadcast the crucial idea that this wasn’t just a brand riding out dubstep’s grimy first wave. This was a label that not only had a future, but had a knack for introducing the future before most people knew it was arriving.

The shifts would come fast, but also wound up sticking — it’s not so much that Hyperdub went through flag-planting “phases” where certain genre trends held sway for a bit, but that they cultivated these ideas in ways that allowed them to grow and shift and hybridize while maintaining their essential character. If you hear a UK funky single on Hyperdub — a peak-era original like Funkystepz, or a next-gen adapter like Fiyahdred — then you can trust that the scene’s burn-bright-burn-fast moment of glowing hedonism was captured at its truest, when it was novel but not yet a novelty. If a Chicago footwork crew like Teklife gets brought on to the label and positioned at the peak of their genre, you can trust it’s legitimizing the original culture’s compatibility with the avant-garde, and not just trying to force it into that context. Hyperdub’s place in the pop pantheon is far closer to the underground than the populist, but it’s also a label run by a critic-slash-scholar-turned-artist who subsequently trusts the artists he signs to make the underground feel wide-open. It’s not that complicated, it’s just complex.

That integrity has left Hyperdub at the forefront of its realm no matter how dance trends ebb and flow — it’s an adaptability that’s comfortable with inspired genre hybrids, new as-yet-unnamed sounds, and throwbacks that tweak nostalgia more than they dwell in it. Well into the pandemic-damaged ’20s, when independent labels are at their most vulnerable, survival means being able to offer everything from pop’n’b conversants like Jessy Lanza to the essentially confrontational noise-house irreverence of 700 Bliss to the abstract yet intensely personal ruminations of Loraine James. Maybe you could still perch Hyperdub somewhere near the margins — a lot of the label’s finest work, past and present, could still be tagged as “experimental,” sure. But if some of it sounds a lot less experimental than it used to, that’s because many of these experiments were successful enough to permeate the mainstream.

Tunes 2011-2019 cover

In hindsight, it feels a bit weird that Burial’s first big wave of genre-codifying, imitation-ready classics came and went over a span of just two and a half years, from the South London Boroughs EP through the release of his second LP Untrue — and then, for years, a deliberate silence that followed the revelation of his real-life identity (turns out he wasn’t Aphex Twin incognito, go figure — just a dude who went to high school with Four Tet). Whatever epiphany or perspective shift brought him back into the lab for a new run of solo singles and EPs would then be borne out in the context of an artist figuring out how to escape his own parameters, to isolate anything in his music that might be too obviously his and excise it ruthlessly. Tunes 2011 to 2019 does something better than serving as a de facto comp-as-overview, though. It could’ve just rolled out a chronological succession of tracks spanning from 2011’s deeply emotive, house-orbiting Street Halo EP to 2019’s striking post-garage/doom-ambient split “Claustro” / “State Forest” and charting it as a stylistic progression. Instead, the sequencing is optimized to show off a more dynamic, vibe-heavy lineage of the ways he departed from his early rain-on-concrete 2-step melancholia. And he has myriad points of departure, from the wholly beatless yet still deeply tactile “State Forest” (given a challenging opening-track place of prominence) to the rangier, more mercurial emotional scope of his Kindred and Rival Dealer EPs that take up the bulk of the album’s aching heart. (The mid-comp stretch that encompasses every track from those EPs, which runs from the gauzy, shamelessly anthemic synthpop-distorting “Hiders” through the shockingly aggro near-industrial throb of “Rival Dealer” to the evocatively decaying anguished-diva house of “Ashtray Wasp,” is possibly the most revelatory succession of songs in his entire catalogue.) It’s as though he’d traded the ambiguity of his real-world facelessness for an increasingly hard-to-pinpoint series of new sonic identities — fair enough, he had to stay unrecognizable somehow.

5 Years of Hyperdub cover

Albums might be the easier route to crossover critical respect, but every good dance label lives and dies by its singles. And by the time Hyperdub crossed the half-decade threshold, they had an embarrassment of riches in the 12" department, even before they had more than a handful of contributors on their roster. The 32-track compilation 5 Years of Hyperdub proves all that and then some: essentials and deep-cut favorites by early-years cornerstones Burial (“South London Boroughs”; “Distant Lights”), Kode9 + the Spaceape (“9 Samurai”; “Time Patrol”), and L.V. (“Turn Away”; “Globetrotting”) reveal both the experimental future-club range and the reggae-rooted depth of their foundational dubstep, and further salvos by next-wave contributors like Cooly G (“Weekend Fly”) and Darkstar (“Aidy’s Girl’s A Computer”) point to a looming, rhythm-upending art-dance future beyond the garage-remnant sounds the label first made its name on. Funnily enough, 5 Years of Hyperdub also anticipates the next 5 years of other labels and scenes — Brainfeeder’s joyful g-funk-goes-avant-jazz deconstructions (Flying Lotus’s “Disco Balls”; Samiyam’s “Return”), Kapsize’s wobbly macro-boogie take on UK bass (Joker solo-billed on “Digidesign” and collabing with Ginz on “Stash”), the kind of frantically restless every-beat-a-question-mark post-genre deconstructed club music that got Zomby (“Kaliko”; “Tarantula”) signed to 4AD — that Hyperdub would soon adapt to its own ends. The label’s next anniversary set five years later took four volumes to encompass; this comp shows why that amount of limitless creative sprawl was inevitable.

Memories of the Future cover

From the label’s 2004 establishment all the way through the end of 2006, two acts — Burial and label founder Kode9 — provided the vast majority of Hyperdub’s then-small catalogue. (Kevin Martin, recording under the alias Pressure for 2005’s Warrior Queen collab “Money Honey”, was the sole exception.) And you could hardly pick a better complementary pair: where Burial’s take on post-garage dubstep was spacious and mournful, founder Kode9 filled the second full-length album in the label’s history with a sense of frustrated tension that bordered on walls-closing-in claustrophobia. Partnering with the vengeful-god-voiced dread poet Stephen Samuel Gordon, b/k/a Spaceape, has just about everything do with that vibe; his hushed rumble of a voice sounds sorrowful, bitter, and empathetic all at once even when it sounds like he’s muttering his condemnations of societal dysfunction back into his own head. But he’s got some stunning beats to work off, too. Kode9’s production reinforces its own burgeoning traditions by drawing off previous ones, with the cavernous bass and horizon-wide reverb of his reggae and dub influences running deep enough to bring Lee “Scratch” Perry to mind before immediate 2-step precursors like Zed Bias. And yet when Memories of the Future pushes that cross-generational hybridization to the forefront, like in the Augustus Pablo-via-Wiley post-grime futurism of “Portal,” the Kurosawa score-lifting heat glow of “9 Samurai,” and the Nintendo-sourced 16-bit overload of closer “Quantum,” that album title starts to make a lot more sense.

Reflection cover

Imagine having the kind of self-consciousness and anxiety that traps you, makes you doubt yourself, straight-up compels you to tell your listeners they might not like what you’re doing — and then trying to work through all those feelings in the club, where you long to lose yourself in a crowd you’re not entirely comfortable in, even when you’re actually the one in the booth tasked with making them dance. That’s not the only mood Loraine James’ third album brings to the fore, but it feels like the most powerful one — right there at the heart of Reflection sits “Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early).” a glitchy-yet-glimmering collision of quick-panning beats suffused with Vangelis-synth melancholy and whisper-mumbled lyrics about how her sound clears dancefloors. It’s a masterful shock in the midst of an album that barely even feinted towards anxiety from the go — not when the first three cuts (Xzavier Stone-featuring club-conquest opener “Built to Last,” juke-refracting instrumental “Let’s Go,” and the hazy, questioning “Simple Stuff”) build on the promise of her experimental bass attacks as a new way to sound joyfully anthemic. But the club itself starts to feel like a fading abstraction as pandemic-era isolation (“Reflection”) and the weight of relentless police violence (expressed by a wounded-sounding Iceboy Violet on “We’re Building Something New”) permeate the second half, until even the things people expect you to do out of social obligation or personal challenge feel like too much to take (“Running Like That,” featuring Eden Samara in top soaring-yet-aching alt-pop form). Still, fighting oppressive anxiety with music this visionary and welcoming, this confrontationally defiant, is the kind of approach that benefits the listeners and James herself — the tracks are tough, forward-looking, and demanding to be heard, even when we can’t bring ourselves to be.

Playin Me cover

Merissa “Cooly G” Campbell broke through right at the moment bass music was having its big pop crisis: the memetic wait for the drop strain of “brostep” was beginning to play up the more extroverted tendencies of club culture, and its counterpoint — the indie-friendly quietude of “post-dubstep” artists like James Blake and Mount Kimbie — seemed better-geared for office-job dayshift earbuds than late-night speaker-rattling parties. But while the string of EPs Cooly G released in the four years leading to her first album covered a lot of ground — her polyglot rhythms, while rooted in UK funky, sparred with everything from house to grime to drum’n’bass — Playin Me struck its third-way balance between soundsystem maximalism and home-listen pop thrills by infusing bass music with the spirit of classic R&B. It’s more allusive than directly referential; her synth tone can evoke the idea of Jam/Lewis dropped into the Second Summer of Love here and there (“Playin’ Me”; “Up In My Head”), and a lot of her more intricately-sequenced abstract-bass beats could only really be R&B in a world that Miss E… So Addictive helped happen. But even when it nods to dance music’s primordial roots in classic soul and disco, her music’s too busy toying with the dynamics of their tension-and-release rhythms to build her entire foundation on them. Her sounds are massive and spacious in ways that balance bass rumbles and hushed ambience with an almost suspense-building level of tension, whether she keeps the beat ultra-minimal (“Come Into My Room,” where the rhythm’s almost entirely carried by piano), pushes it to the fore (the glitchy, almost Amon Tobin-esque stammer-beat of “Is It Gone”), or slowly crests from one mode to the other (listen to how the hi-hat shiver on “He Said I Said” starts to coalesce into something choppier and more insistent). Of course, Cooly G’s a singer, too — a strong one even (or especially) at her most vulnerable, whose lyrics complete the sorrowful undercurrent by alluding to a relationship both intimately warm and cruelly insufficient. And if nothing else, she actually made Coldplay’s “Trouble” sound like an emotionally stirring, heartbroken-in-the-club anthem — a knack for that level of alchemy is rare.

Untrue cover

Music for an endless austerity era, Burial’s second album cast a halogen glow on the atmospheric yearning of the debut that made him anon-famous. Here he distills the emotional melodic pull of UK garage and the rhythmic intricacy of its dubstep successors into the kind of after-hours music that makes every near-empty public transit station and fast-food joint feel like the stage for a deeply introspective meditation. And it sounds just as impactful toying with your emotions through solitary late nights on your headphones as it does rumbling through sound systems.

Waiting for You cover

Kevin Martin had a fearsome rep long before he became one of dub’s latter-day mutation specialists — one that built off the gnarled percussive assault of his work with Techno Animal and as The Bug, especially his 1997 illbient Tapping the Conversation, that established him as one of the most uncompromising producers to blow up a bassbin. But after drawing off his ragga and dancehall enthusiasms to spend the bulk of the decade pushing the limits of dub-inflected heaviness, Martin closed out the 2000s with a wonderfully counterintuitive idea: take the one relatively quiet outlier from The Bug’s otherwise heavy-hitting London Zoo, the Roger Robinson-featuring love-survives-the-void meditation “You and Me,” and build a whole new world out of it. Martin, Robinson, and visual artist Kiki Hitomi coalesced as King Midas Sound, and to call Waiting for You something of a lovers’ rock album wouldn’t be out of the question, assuming you factor in how isolating and bewildering that yearning for love can feel. Robinson’s voice finds strength in vulnerability — not just in the loneliness (“Waiting for You”) or the desire (“Lost”), but in the resolve to keep going (“I Man”) and the ability to give himself to something bigger — like music itself (“Cool Out,” where he boasts about his ability to “run ‘em out the dancehall wipin’ tears from their eyes”). And Martin’s production, pared back to a static-textured and negative-spacious throb, reveals that his appeal was never entirely about the raw power of his bass, but the warmth that radiates off it.

Nothing To Declare cover

Philly-based rapper-slash-poet Moor Mother thrives in every musical context she’s tried so far, exorcising trauma through the means of avant hip-hop (solo and alongside the likes of billy woods, cf. Brass), free jazz (the ensemble Irreversible Entanglements), experimental noise (Black Quantum Fututirsm) — and, inevitably in the club-minded early ’20s, dance music. But her pairing with DJ Haram isn’t quite so cut-and-dry: while the rock-the-bell hooks on Nothing to Declare can nod all the way back to ’80s-vintage drag ballrooms and classic house (“Nightflame” especially), it’s when they compress 21st century machine-beat history into a noisy surveillance-era assault on post-colonial cruelty that the beat hits heaviest. Haram finds early-Wiley iciness beneath hyperpop’s surface (“Totally Spies”), strips The Money Store of its extraneous debris to let the beat breathe down your neck (“Bless Grips”), and foregrounds panic-glitch beats and serrated bass that’s built to destroy (“Candace Parker”). And though Moor Mother’s voice is subject to countless distortions and mutation, her terse, defiant power as a lyricist and performer has rarely felt more upfront and (title notwithstanding) declarative in its defiance.

Oh No cover

Sometimes you need to work out your stresses the most productive way you know how: by channeling it through the expressive escape of pop, where a deceptively upbeat vibe can act more as a goal to strive for than a default state to revel in. And with her hyperpop-adjacent but comparatively austere sense of club-mode R&B/bass music hybridization — co-produced with the assistance of Junior Boys founding member Jeremy Greenspan — she’s assembled a set that expresses a collective-ready catharsis that’s best transmuted into dancefloor release. Maybe that leaves early impressions of lyrical-musical dissonance, or at least ironic juxtaposition. But that’s not as new a concept as the shift in dance-music scope that Lanza helms here, where her poly-genre freedom works because she’s got a voice made for all of them. The glowing electro-boogie of “VV Violence” coats a serrated knife with a layer of glittery candy paint over (“I’m working all day long/For the love I never see/Yeah I say it to your face/But it doesn’t mean a thing”), snapping from chirpy Ke$ha taunts to emotively pained freestyle. The downtempo synthpop throwback of “I Talk BB” floats between sparse Minneapolis Sound digi-funk and labelmate Cooly G’s post-dubstep soul, her falsetto threatening to crack but never wavering, even as she sings about wanting to avoid her lover’s eye contact. That face-to-face connection is found in “It Means I Love You,” which corrals the typically frenetic rhythms of juke through a sample of a South African Shangaan electro track that Lanza’s pitched-up voice turns into a declaration of love that hits like an ultimatum. Those are just a few highlights on a joyously frustration-venting club-pop classic of an album, Lanza emerging here as a versatile, evocative voice that finds herself by finding a lot of other selves.

Burial cover

It took the span of about a year for Burial to ascend from the release of one of Hyperdub’s first few releases, 2005’s South London Boroughs EP, to one of the most astonishing debut albums of the decade. All it took was a perfectly-timed sense of where the UK garage/2-step continuum was headed: somewhere spacious and vast yet rhythmically close-quarters, and soaked in a time-displacing, landscape-distorting reverb that emphasized the dub in dubstep. In the abstract, Burial feels like the soundtrack of trying to find a home everywhere but home, in looking for warmth and solace in the concrete and asphalt and streetlights of a city in decline. That holds in part because it’s an ideal exemplar of a dance record that also clicks as an ambient record: its sense of textural, environmental noise and the uneasy disquiet that comes with it became a constant in Burial’s career long after the grooves shifted, but it feels especially moving when there’s the once-lively skitter-beat of garage’s fading optimism pushing it along. But Burial’s sense of alienated anxiety would linger, and the album that gave that sound its breakthrough has yet to feel dated — familiar, maybe, and old enough to be nostalgic, but not entirely of the past.

Next Life cover

The death of DJ Rashad in April 2014 cast a pall over the future of the creatively flush early ’10s footwork movement. But that future would be in good hands, survived as Rashad was by the Teklife crew he and DJ Spinn had worked so long to build in Chicago. And months before the founding of Teklife’s own label, the collective pulled off one of the greatest footwork releases to drop on Hyperdub — one with a title that alluded to a Taso-popularized slogan, Teklife Till tha Next Life, that turned out to be better-served with a Through in place of the Till. Rashad’s there in spirit, but with only one track to his credit — the four-man collab/lean-and-molly clash “OTS,” where he shares billing with Taso, Spinn, and DJ Manny — Next Life meets its forward-looking title head on. Teklife’s Chicago-rooted unity pushes an attitude of defiance that feels provincial in origin but international in ambition, and this compilation’s embrace of other hometown predecessors that built the foundations of footwork itself — vets like Traxman (dropping berserk hi-hats and humid low-end beneath the ironic-for-dance command “Sit Ya Self Down”), Gant-Man (whose immersive “Jungle Juke” sounds less like either than it does like ineffable meta-techno), and RP Boo (whose “That’s It 4 Lil Ma” is one of the starkest yet most insistently aggressive beats in his vast catalogue). And since the juke diaspora broke out of its second-city confines, the inclusion of other regions’ adopters is crucial. So you get a couple choice cuts from NYC-based Durban (elegiacally building its trembling clapkicksnare jumble to an outer-atmosphere glide on “I’m So”) and Tripletrain (flirting with piano rave on “Never Could Be, Part 2”), while the emergent North Carolinian DJ Paypal shines on the borderline breakcore of analog-synth freakout “FM Blast” and the disco-as-fuck house-roots move of “U Should No,” the latter a group effort with Serbian producers Feloneezy and Jackie Dagger. But the core crew at the heart of the Teklife movement is just as rangy, whether it’s DJ Manny turning the titular voice sample of “Harvey Ratchet” into its own percussive intonation, or throne-heirs DJ Earl and DJ Taye throwing more flashy yet perfectly-timed tag-team kicks than the Young Bucks in “Wurkinn da Bass."

Still Trippin’ cover

DJ Taye’s genre-expanding approach to footwork was set in motion when the producer was still in his late teens, as 2012’s Overdose on Teklife picked up on the collective’s future-juke mission statement and dropped a batch of tracks that sounded borderline rave-ready. Five years later, that broad-vibes techno-eclecticism would flourish on his first for Hyperdub, the stunning Still Trippin’, by finding all the ways to not just work with but work around footwork’s trademark rhythms. The rapidfire programming of his drums waxes and wanes, shifting from familiar staccato juke structures to the blurrier traditions of dance: think “2094” pulling back the hyperspeed hi-hats every so often to let the resonance of his melodies evoke the same hypnotic mid-tempo waves present in g-funk and bass music alike, or the way that the Chuck Inglish feature “Get It Jukin’” shapes the dynamics of footwork around a tempo suitable for rapping (even if “I’m’a have to rap this slow”) while the future-boogie synth breathes like a Dam-Funk instrumental beneath it. Per Teklife tradition, most tracks are collaborative efforts, and the pull between Taye’s foundational Chicago cohort (i.e. DJ Manny) and his next-gen out-of-town peers (namely DJ Paypal) isn’t as cut-and-dry as you might expect — in fact, it’s the Manny tracks, like the acid-jungle incursions of “Need It” and the giddy Atari spasms of the bloopy bomb-dropping “The Matrix,” that most draw off tradition by mercilessly fucking with it, while the Paypal cuts like “Truu” and “Pop Drop” lean closer to the pure unadorned footwork of their predecessors — albeit with a greater dose of rhythmic anarchy. (That said,the fast-forward microchopped-violin(!) of “Bonfire” is deeply weird in a shock-of-the-new kind of way.) And while these make for great tracks, Taye pushes them into great songs, his presence on the mic as a rapper shadowboxing his own beats offering the strongest case yet for footwork as a crossover-ready vector of dance, R&B, and hip-hop while still remaining true.

Black Is Beautiful cover

For a while, the duo that once called themselves Hype Williams built up a sense of evasive mystery that rivaled their eventual labelmate Burial. But then they started to switch up their approach, trading their secondhand video-auteur-sourced alias for individual names that still didn’tt match their real ones and releasing an album where only one track has a title turned out to be merely the simplest announcements of their ramped-up misdirection. The title Black Is Beautiful and its Ebony magazine-logo cover are themselves such obviously declarative generations-old statements of purpose that it feints at a cultural specificity that never arrives (and was probably never in a hurry to get on its way). Instead, it’s a bewildering panoply of internet-compressed global-pop-goes-avant tropes — smeared, Brainfeeder-y drum-rattling drone-jazz (“Venice Dreamway”), ’80s VHS dream-pop hauntology (“2”), a restless take on footwork so mutable it threatens to trip over itself (“12") — that feel too confident in the power of these influences to fully succumb to irony poisoning. Nothing really coheres, and somehow that context collapse feels thrilling, though it definitely helps that its collection of short-enough-for-punk outbursts are demarcated by a midpoint shift (dynamite-fuse abstract hip-hop grotesquerie “9”; the wildly queasy 9 ½-minute minimal-synth fever dream “10”) that serve as a make-or-break encounter with longer-form sonic disorientation. And while the lo-fi-by-necessity production might take on a sketch-like quality, the thing about sketches is that they can often be more evocative in their obscured, half-formed details than any glossy final render could ever be.

Double Cup cover

Chicago’s footwork movement didn’t necessarily need the blessing of an avant-conversant label like Hyperdub to be legitimized; its street-music origins would always feel centered no matter how many wonky-beat Brits or extremely online bedroom producers got their fingers into it. But less than half a year before his far-too-soon passing, DJ Rashad’s first album for Hyperdub — and his only full-length for the label in his lifetime — defiantly confronted the prospects of a broader international club-hopping juke movement and went sure, if it’s on my terms. Granted, Rashad’s terms were shared by a lot of people. Only two cuts on Double Cup are sole credits, and while they’re absolute monsters — the Pac-in-Juice tone spasms of “I Don’t Give A Fuck” and the house-vs-trap clash of “Reggie” do absolutely unholy things with the genre’s tumbling triplet-heavy drum patterns — the collaborative presence of his extended Teklife family, including Taso, Manny, DJ Phil, and DJ Spinn, reinforces his case as not just a titan of the movement but a cultivator of it. Those collective efforts turn out hellbent on making footwork as immersive melodically as it is rhythmically; soak up the hyperaccelerated sleight-of-tempo g-funk “Pass That Shit,” the stammering ’90s R&B echolalia of “Only One,” and the title track’s nods to Chicago acid house’s glorious 303 squelches for the best effect. Even the appearance of Bristol juke adopter Addison Groove on “Acid Bit” feels like less of a startling trans-Atlantic crossover than a knowing nod: you’re welcome to try this sound out for yourself just as long as you have the respect to know its roots, the curiosity to find your voice through it, and the momentum to keep up with it.

Quarantine cover

With a Makoto Aida-drawn cover depicting joyful seppuku and a thematic bent that alludes to a besieged-by-illness anxiety eight years before it was omnipresent, Laurel Halo’s debut album Quarantine initially seems to carry this sense of liberation in total negation. And that carries the album far enough on its own — the intensity of feeling trapped in your own ambivalence, of trying to make forward progress out of sheer inertia, of feeling love like it’s a medicine that keeps you alive but makes you sick. But the depth of that emotional tension is only hinted at in her lyrics, which repeat like ruminative spirals that never fully resolve. It’s the way Halo puts her voice out front, untreated and occasionally flat and sometimes completely discordant, that makes everything feel as raw as it needs to be. Even the resonant multi-tracking sweep of her vocals on opener “Airsick” and the safehouse-seeking panic of “MK Ultra” (“Hurricane’s always coming/so take cover or run”) seem to revel in the frankness of her sour notes and the moments where the expression overwhelms her range. When those limits are flouted and put on vulnerable display in tracks like “Years” and “Thaw,” a tone that seems “flawed” by technical standards also feels real and deliberate and ultimately relatable. And as her production approaches its tumultuous side with an unfamiliar level of restraint and open space — aggression and angst absorbed into the quietude of synthpop’s more experimental turns towards the ambient — it not only puts her melodic unease in the same tradition that stretches from Boards of Canada to Daniel Lopatin, it simultaneously embodies both a high-pressure sadness, and the refuge in meditative melody that helps to hold that sadness at bay.

Shfl