Steve Goodman’s Hyperdub label is something of a haven for darkly atmospheric correctives to the recent streak of lighthearted House revivalism—this past year has seen releases from dubstep stalwart Ikonika and insular genre exercises from Chicago footwork master DJ Rashad, among others. Laurel Halo, whose last LP, Quarantine, was a startling configuration of ambient washes and claustrophobic lyrics, is something of an outlier even within a roster that includes experimental weirdos Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland. Her music has strong roots in techno, but also at times contains a near nihilistic disregard for dance floor functionality. Quarantine elicited strong reactions by foregrounding Halo's blunt, acidic singing voice, an element that proved instrumental to the music’s overall feeling of catharsis; in the context of a label known for its muddy, pitch-shifted vocals, the choice seemed bold, even brash. It proved to be a freeing move: since then, Halo has s any last shreds of self-consciousness, honing her tight, angular production on 2012's sexually charged Behind the Green Door EP and the bittersweet Sunlight on the Faded.
Chance of Rain, her latest, is a further refinement of her craft, trading that startling voice for a dense, intensely detailed set of instrumentals. This change means that a wide range of sounds share equal time in the spotlight, and the result is consistently well-balanced. Everything here is rigidly metered, with the structured deployment of sounds replacing Quarantine’s queasy formlessness. Yet the music still manages to hint at similarly unsettling themes like isolation, mortality, and decay. Halfway through the headlong rush of title track, “Chance of Rain,” for instance, the noise recedes to reveal a dolorous piano motif that sounds like it came out of a 1950s horror film. The album is scattered with subtle echoes of that piano’s dissonance, in the disjointed “Still/Dromos,” the just-a-bit-off melody on “Thrax” that sounds like the work of a deranged steel drum player, and the abrupt changes in mood between songs.
Aesthetically, Laurel Halo is delving further and further into the murky realm of dub techno—the muffled bass thud employed on the album's rhythmic tracks evoke the morbid crunch of Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems, and it adds a melancholy weight to the proceedings. Chance of Rain has a classic feel that stems from its shared lineage with Stott and other luminaries of the genre, including German tastemakers Basic Channel and Detroit-based cult favorites Drexciya, whose aesthetic of underwater futurism finds kinship in Halo's own affinity for death-tinged iconography—the album art, drawn by Halo’s father in the 70s, shows a group of men waking up bitterly in the afterlife, but like the music, it’s less morose than acutely aware of the passage of time.
Accordingly, Halo complicates her version of techno atmospherics by injecting it with a sense of mortal urgency, cranking up the velocity into breakneck variations that play with the idea of impermanence. On the impossibly complex “Oneiroi,” a raspy, uneven pulse grounds a changing collage of rhythmic elements that drives the track far from where it started, while “Ainnome,” the album’s first single, interrupts its machine-made whine in unpredictable ways. Most of the tracks, aside from smoky piano bar bookends “Dr. Echt” and “Out”, build pristine structures out of similarly coarse textures—the aural equivalent of a grainy photograph zoomed in on the metal skeleton of a building. “Serendip”, with its scraped-out, roughly sanded melodic theme, is the closest anything on here comes to a club anthem, but it’s a noisy, frantic one.
In an interview with Resident Advisor this year, Halo said that “it’s important to always have the musical mindset first, and the technical mindset second.” Though Chance of Rain has dystopian moments, it’s also a remarkably beautiful place to linger. It’s a credit to Halo’s skill with the connotative power of sound that she was able to inject real emotion into a potentially cold, technocratic form, and it’s exciting to imagine where she might go next. After listening a few times, the open-ended title seems increasingly hopeful—like the music on the album, it implies a multitude of possibilities.