Trace Laurel Halo‘s releases from 2017’s weightless, synth-and-beat-driven Dust over the next six years and you might hear Atlas coming. Though she has shed musical skins effortlessly, keeping listeners guessing over the years leading up to that record, since then, she has shifted toward the cinematic, the sparse, and the more ambient. In fact, 2020’s Possessed was a film score. Still, one might argue that there isn’t an artist any more unpredictable. As a keyboard player, Halo can flit from jittery tantrums, as she does on “Quietude” from 2018’s Raw Silk Uncut Wood to forebodingly sparse piano chords (“Mercury”, from that same LP.) By the time of Possessed, she was composing for piano and strings, with a healthy dose of disquieting drones.
Atlas, her debut release on her own label, Awe, feels like a natural progression. Mixing her piano, electronics, guitars, vibes, and vocals with strings and saxophone, she creates her most glacial music yet, sounds that can fool a listener into to hearing something static even while it constantly shifts. With this record, there is a kinship with Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, Anna von Hausswolff’s All Thoughts Fly, or even the second half of Acid Mothers Temple’s 40-minute icy drone “Blue Velvet Blues”.
Arguably, Halo’s geographical relocations influence her work. It’s certainly easy to hear how a few years in Berlin, the experimental dance music capital of the world, influenced Dust. While Atlas may not seem to be a typical soundtrack for Los Angeles, where she currently resides, it certainly sounds like the work of someone testing out yet another environment. “Reading the Air” crawls along for five and half minutes, with clouds of sounds tumbling gently by, even as the track feels at times like a warning. “Sweat, Tears or the Sea” begins with electronic whispers before adding a few keyboard layers. The electronics wink here, nudge there, creating occasional unexpected silences.
Yet, it’s tracks such as “Sick Eros” that dominate the soundscape as disturbing drones create foggy swells that feel as frightening as they do cathartic. It’s as if Halo has made a soundtrack to the album’s cover, which depicts her face, out of focus, with what appear to be city lights surrounded by a hazy blue sky. It’s never quite certain what one hears or when it mutates into the next sonic wave; instead, the sounds are smeared across tracks, allowing them to operate by stealth.
While her latest work may share a bit of sonic ground with contemporary drone-based artists such as Ellen Arkbo, Kali Malone, or Sarah Davachi, none of them create music quite as fluid or as wide-screened as the sounds heard here.