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HomeEntertainmentReview | Laurel Halo’s ambient music deserves your undivided attention

Review | Laurel Halo’s ambient music deserves your undivided attention


Somewhere between Brian Eno’s finest hours and whatever algorithmic junk sounds Spotify wants you to stream while you do your math homework, our shared understanding of ambient music seems to have split in two.

Over here, it’s like expensive perfume — an art-music of effervescence and intentionality that somehow contends with Eno’s 1978 maxim that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Over there, it’s a thickening smog, including but not limited to: A.I. new age made for day spas, zombie jazz made for coffee shops, rapperless rap beats made for gyms, and, really, any kind of pop song relegated to soundtracking our most unholy moments of commerce, online or off. Here’s the dank twist: Whenever musicians try to spritz the former without fully reckoning with the latter, their perfume only makes the smog funkier and more sizable.

Laurel Halo elevates herself from these unfortunate circumstances on “Atlas,” a slow-moving, quietly captivating, largely instrumental new album that feels rigorous, weightless, patient and moody — mostly in the sense that the Los Angeles composer-producer knows that our brains are capable of experiencing all kinds of moods, sometimes even more than a few at once. It’s refreshing, but it’s no big surprise. Back in 2012, Halo gave us “Quarantine,” an album of mutant pop songs sung in an entirely original, soul-touching wail that we haven’t heard since. From there, she ventured into muggy techno, which led to a film score, and then a spot playing jazzy neo-fusion in the Moritz von Oswald Trio, not to mention her supremely enlightening radio show on the digital station NTS. Now, with “Atlas,” Halo seems to have atomized all of those sounds into something so meticulously magnetic, you might catch yourself trying to count the atoms.

I lost count on the second track, “Naked to the Light,” when three half-distinct sounds — best guess: piano, cello, a pungent chord of unknown provenance — gently bumped into one another as if they’d been spilled into the halls of a music school without doors. Once I got my head out of the hallways, I jotted down the words “contemplative dissonance.” Is that what’s happening here? Whenever Halo makes her melodies clash on this album, she does it without pomp or violence, which frequently conjures the sensation of trying to reconcile two opposing ideas inside your mind at once — something we do all day long, but could probably spend the rest of our lives trying to get better at.

Maybe that’s the fundamental utility of this music. “Atlas” isn’t another ambient record designed to help you zone out, drift off or refocus your attention on something else altogether (treadmills, term papers, the barista calling your name). Instead, Halo’s soft dissonances keep us alert and aware, better orienting us to life’s details in every direction. When music journalist Shawn Reynaldo recently asked Halo about her album’s title, she said, “The record to me sounds like a collection of maps. It has all these little sonic details that could be a mountain peak … a little creek snaking around the bend, topographical lines here and there.”

Catch that? Forget about ignorable and interesting, foreground and background, perfume and smog, and just remember that life is frequently disharmonious and unfathomably dense, and instead of trying to float your heavy head right out of it, here’s some music that wants to help you find your way through.



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