Shadows and electronics simmer on Juana Molina's breathtakingly empty new release.
Juana Molina is not afraid of the dark.
On every album she releases, she revels in the eerie, dancing with shadows and painting with echoes. Long-awaited Halo (it’s been four long years since Wed 21) is no exception, a masterpiece based on minimal electronics and wispy vocals -- but which also sometimes rises into a chorus of melodic howls or a quorum of furious strings. Everything Molina sings sounds like an incantation; her lyrics dwell on potions, spells, love, mirrors, and the moon. Her featherweight voice has a tendency to sway, to take on an almost inhuman quiet.
Her whole production style is given to simmering rather than exploding. It’s rare for a track to feel full, and the negative space that remains is an important part of Molina’s elusive aesthetic. When she decides to add instead of subtracting, the effect is all the more powerful for the carefully calculated sonic absences throughout. Single "Cosoco" is the most linear track on the album, a whirlwind of guitar, drums, bass, and synth that goes nonstop for a good five minutes. Straightforward rhythms and melody make it a perfect single: memorable and accessible. It’s also one of the less remarkable tracks in the context of the full album, which only goes to show how much deeper Molina is willing to go on the rest of Halo.
There’s no fear in sight as Molina alternates between the avant-garde ("A00 B01" relies heavily on robotic atonality to back chant-like vocalizations) and the vulnerable (Molina quotes an opera by Ravel and Colette against melancholy guitar on "Los Pies Helados"), leaving footprints everywhere in between. All through the work is a sense of Juana Molina’s whole self, each facet of her creativity without the need to hide behind a simple façade for the sake of a more digestible or approachable public image. Almost all of the writing, arranging, and performing across these dozen tracks is solely Molina’s, and it lets her vision come through clearly. She is in full control of Halo, and it’s clear from start to finish.
Though the sounds can be thin, the atmosphere is thick and evocative. The album’s cover and liner notes are filled with images of bones on black backgrounds. On each one has been juxtaposed an image of Molina’s eyes, and most are also clad in boldly printed skirts. It’s whimsical, it’s morbid, and it’s perfect for Molina, who throws humorous synth notes over muted percussion on quick, unpredictable song "Andó" and lets her guitar dip into melodramatic hues on breakup tune "Estalacticas" as she approaches banshee heights.
Halo ends on the serene solo piece "Al oeste", a pensive tune about looking for the sun, and it’s an appropriate closing. There is the promise of warmth without the glare of light, a cool tenderness in Molina’s treatment of each word and a soothing repetition in the melody. It’s a final glimpse into her multidimensional mind -- for now -- and a satisfying one. She ends it wordlessly, with a series of "ah"s in unity with guitar chords, and the final sounds ring out, melting into her empty spaces and back to the dark from which they came. It’s a full, satisfying circle.