By Paul Ballard
Artist: Laurel Halo
Date / Venue: Wednesday September 18th - Whammy Bar, Auckland
I had a sense of déjà-vu: another Wednesday night, another bass-heavy gig at our old friend Whammy Bar. It has been telling over the past years, how music otherwise deemed as 'alternative' now embraces electronica as one of its guises. Wears it well too. With it comes a welcomed resurgence in venue options, allowing this known underbelly of K Road to once again bask in a different yet somewhat familiar light.
My last visit here was to review the disappointingly average TOKiMONSTA on her maiden visit to our shores, yet tonight already had a different feel. A low hum of anticipation. Tonight we were going to be treated to something unique.
In a few short years Michigan-born Laurel Halo has impressively thrown into question the somewhat traditional markings of electronic music. Classically trained, Laurel has 'unravelled the manifesto'. Her 2012 debut album Quarantine on London-based Hyperdub Recordings was an explorative delving into both nervous energy and abstract clubland. Her follow-up EP Behind The Green Door continued along the same lines, becoming a hybrid marriage of Detroit techno and Ambient House.
Her new album Chance of Rain, due to drop in October, evolves things further, celebrating both stillness and progress, with improvised interludes amidst the industrial scenery. It has been well documented that Laurel loves playing live, in fact this has come to determine the way she makes her records. She has ditched her laptop, replacing it with just her MPC, Machinedrum, synth and pedals to enable the music to grow, to expand and to fill the space within a live context. I was quietly excited.
I arrived early as DJ Mark Wundercastle was warming the room with some classic house throwbacks. Certainly an interesting choice of style; however, I was becoming aware from the outset that this would not be just any old evening. I wasn't the only one. A beanie-donned reveller, armed only with a backpack and looking remarkably similar to the character 'Tyres' from the UK TV series Spaced, was already staking his claim, throwing shapes on an otherwise empty dancefloor.
A dimly-lit low table sat centre stage, covered in an assorted mass of cables and musical equipment. Chaotic in appearance, but heightening the sense of unpredictability. A folded ironing board was leaning somewhat conspicuously against one of the back walls. I love this venue.
The projector light flickered into action. A small crowd had already gathered by the time Mark's partnerAshlin took to the stage to join him for the first support act of the night, Dawn Marble. With Mark at the helm, the house beats quickly made way for something more discerning, as Ashlin layered haunting vocals over rolling drum 'n' bass. With Mark still confined to the DJ booth, Ashlin was alone in the limelight, which at first seemed uncomfortably disjointed. However as their set progressed, her solitary figure shifting erratically in the dimness under the projected images added a strange yet apt sense of melancholy. It worked beautifully, if only by accident. There was evidence of Mark's love of all things yesteryear here too. Experimental broken beats in some ways evoked the post-jungle artists of the 90s such as Lamb, Olive and Breakbeat Era. Good things are yet to come from these two, I am sure.
The scene was set and room filling up. A varied crowd, electric with anticipation of the night ahead. I had almost forgotten it was a Wednesday. Once again Mark filled the space between acts, returning to his house roots - Rhythm is Rhythm's 1987 classic Strings of Life being a particular standout. Even though his housey interludes had at first seemed slightly left of centre, it acted as the ideal sorbet between courses.
The bar was buzzing by the time local producer Totems stepped up. Traversing through his renowned heavy bass, trap and breakbeat, he leapt from laptop to controller like a man possessed. But although his meanderings were well written and clinical by execution, this is pretty much where my love for its live form hits a stumbling block. There is a fine line between interaction and indulgence. Concentrating on a laptop screen and simply pushing buttons lends itself to feeling more like work than playing a room. What results is a weirdly insular process within a very live context, with little or no appreciation for the organic form. Although obviously well rehearsed by construction, any notion of spontaneity was lost, which was a shame. Picking up two dustbin lids and banging them together would have at least brought back a sense that he was actually creating something on the fly. I certainly knew of an ironing board he could have used.
One final interlude from Mark before the lights dimmed and Laurel Halo quietly took to the stage, her trademark flowing hair falling out from beneath a woollen beanie. With a smile and a nod from Laurel, the systems hummed into action. What appeared to be the delicate opening chords of 2012's Head, quickly morphed into something more vigorous. As the bassline kicked in, seeming to reverberate with every piece of glassware in the room, we realised we were in for quite the ride.
What occurred over the next hour is something that I have been spending the last three days trying to articulate in any way that would do it suitable justice. Predominantly techno in form, there was a sheer effortlessness in the way Laurel was able to move through the different moods of her repertoire. Moments of unpredictability transformed into ambient drifts and deep harmonic passages. With hands moving lightly across the controls, breathing from one structure to the next, she orchestrated a vast but at the same time claustrophobic world of beats and keys.
This is where Laurel is at her best, in her ability to play with those odd frequencies to find a match. Unlike most techno sets there were no peaks or troughs here, just a steady movement forward as if each song were an emotion. All linear structure was lost, yet somehow this process created its own patterns which worked together. The off-kilter nature of her approach gave things a strange sense of unease, a dark undertone that had its own grace. A beauty within the ugliness. New sounds that at first appeared out of sync and awkward, suddenly found a steady pattern. Moving out of time at first but slowly forming a new shape until we realised we had transitioned once more, each new tune very different in pace and feel from the last.
Of course there was the was the odd recognisable moment, the haunting out of tune piano riffs of Throw, the erratic breakbeats of Chance of Rain, or the hynoptic grip of Sex Missions. But this night was not about the singular, it was a celebration of the complete form. The whole voyage.
At one point I remember looking across the heaving 160-strong dancefloor and becoming aware that in our own way we were all in sync. We got it. Her music was a solid mass of hard and soft angles moving between us. Elements within it shifted at different paces and levels, challenging your perception like a puzzling Escher lithograph. Those differences in alignment were further amplified by the fact that it allowed us all to move to our own beat within it. To follow our own distinctive path through things. Characters were created in the mayhem, some shaking head and limbs as if exorcising a mid-week demon; others simply swaying, feeling the moment, waiting for the next phase to tap them on the shoulder and drag them through into another headspace. It was live electronica at its best and Laurel's inventiveness through uncertainty was quite simply spell-binding.
Before I departed into the night, I knew another lasting memory would be of our friend Tyres, who by this time had shed both beanie and backpack and was now on side of stage giving it everything he had. His smile said it all. A very special night indeed.