“Atlas” is a weighty term for a weighty tome—hardbacked, oversized, cutting the whole world down into perfect-bound pages. To the mythologically inclined, it has other associations, too—namely, the weight of the world itself, resting heavily on a Greek Titan’s brawny shoulders. But whatever Laurel Halo may have been thinking when she hit upon the title, this strange, beguiling record has little in common with either reference. It offers neither the certainties of cartography nor the force required to sustain such an oppressive planetary burden. To the contrary: Halo’s fifth solo album maps a diaphanous universe in which no line extends for long without dissolving into an inky blot, and even the densest, most massive shapes might disintegrate beneath a puff of breath.
Halo—an American electronic musician, DJ, and composer who made her name in New York and Berlin, and recently relocated to Los Angeles, where she teaches at Cal Arts—has had a singular career, with no two records alike. Her earliest releases danced on the fringes of the nascent vaporwave movement; she has since explored avant-pop, splintered techno, and alien, biomorphic vocal treatments. In recent years, she has increasingly foregrounded abstraction and dissonance, and her new album is clearly an extension of the lines of inquiry behind 2018’s Raw Silk Uncut Wood and 2020’s Possessed soundtrack. Here as there, atmosphere and texture take precedence over rhythm or melody. But where Raw Silk Uncut Wood could meander, sometimes privileging process over outcome, Atlas—for all its seeming difficulty—is exponentially more invested in the experience of pleasure. Even its most impenetrable passages morph into gorgeous, sweeping strings or bittersweet piano cadenzas. It might be the most moving record of Halo’s career.
Atlas came together in 2020 and 2021, a period Halo has called “a disquieting and sleepy moment in all our lives.” For inspiration, she looked to things she was selecting for Awe, her monthly show on London online radio NTS: ambient music, electroacoustic composition, minimalism, and jazz piano. Another influence was the “slow-cinema” auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films she has praised for their “humor, hidden detail, and dream logic”—all qualities that animate Atlas. (The humor may be harder to pick out, but it’s there, I think, in the sheer bewilderingness of the record’s dissonance; its opacity, at points, verges on absurdism, like an existentialist joke.) A residency at Paris’ historic ina-GRM studios gave Halo the opportunity to run keyboard sketches through arcane electronic gizmos, producing an otherworldly palette that is neither strictly acoustic nor obviously digital. She also relied on a few close collaborators (saxophonist Bendik Giske, cellist Lucy Railton, violinist James Underwood, and, singing on “Belleville,” Coby Sey), yet their contributions tend to be routed back into the album’s murky matrix. Everything—even Halo’s own wordless, stacked vocal harmonies—is subservient to the foggy totality. Nothing survives vaporization; nothing remains whole.
The album begins conventionally enough, with a dusky swirl of strings that might belong to the familiar terrain of an act like Stars of the Lid. But as the sound expands, it becomes stranger. Its dimensions turn amorphous. Across the stereo spectrum, competing string passages swell and bleed into one another. Deep in the murk, piano chords chime as arrhythmically as church bells. Bows saw away at strings, but it is impossible to say how many players there might be, or even how many ensembles; it feels like standing in the hallway between two different orchestras as they tune up.
Soupy chaos defines the album. Again and again, Halo returns to those themes of density, clashing frequencies, and overcast colors. But submerged in the ambiguous gloom are melodies that occasionally rear their head, stealthy and triumphant, before plunging back down into the depths, never to be heard from again. In “Naked to the Light,” Halo plays a brief, searching refrain on the piano, repeating it with slight variation a handful of times, as though striving to frame an elusive question. In “Late Night Drive,” an echo of dub techno pulses faintly before a languid phrase bubbles up like the memory of a Hollywood musical, capturing all the tragic romance of Julia Holter’s Aviary or Lucrecia Dalt’s ¡Ay!. In “Sick Eros,” a fleeting orchestral flourish summons memories of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s unabashedly sentimental soundtrack to The Sheltering Sky.
Trying to make sense of Atlas can sometimes feel like searching for Rorschach blots in a Rothko. The tone is largely uniform, yet the mood is mercurial. Alluring and radiant yet perpetually slipping from your grasp, the music plays with disappearance the way most contemporary music uses repetition. The album’s simplest and sweetest track is “Belleville,” its centerpiece. For a minute and a half, Halo plays a gentle piano ballad before the piece blossoms into a mournfully ecstatic passage of strings and wordless singing. The passage lasts just six or seven seconds before falling silent, leaving only the piano in its wake. A less daring composer might have built upon the refrain, expanded it into a dramatic climax. Yet Halo seems to realize that to let it go on any longer would be overkill. Atlas derives its power from the tension between broad expanses of formlessness and sudden eruptions of destabilizing beauty. To me, this tender, elegiac album sounds like deathbed music—a flash of rapture while everything fades to black.