Laurel Halo and Daniel Lopatin both make music for the internet age. Chance plays a role in their compositions, which burrow down unexpected rabbit holes, get stuck in loops, snag themselves on digital detritus and tear themselves open, or else drop unexpectedly into empty, drifting nothings, black holes in cyberspace. Parts and ideas collide, hyperlink into each other. Time feels fluid, as if it’s flowing in both directions at once.
They are not the only musicians, of course, to be influenced on a structural level by the World Wide Web. There’s a certain aural and visual style that permeates a lot of this so-called ‘internet’ music – the GIF and meme-saturated aesthetic of the collective known as PC Music, for example – and it’s one that’s filtered into both Lopatin and Halo’s work, including their videos and album artwork. But my favourite albums by each artist share another, unexpected connection – their sleeves are adorned with detailed black-and-white sketches, one depicting graves, the other a skeleton.
Just look at that sleeve, from Halo’s 2013 record Chance of Rain. It’s beautiful. One of my favourite album sleeves of any genre. The drawing – an early and uncharacteristic piece by her artist father, Arthur Chartow – is so mysterious. Where is the sky and where is the ground? Are the bodies rising from the dead, or settling down into their graves in preparation? In the bottom left hand corner we can see, through the grave, what appears to be the man’s funeral, a priest and mourners gathered around his gravestone, suggesting that this might be the other side of the line dividing life from death. At first, if you didn’t know the artist, you might expect some kind of doom folk record, a set of apocalyptic lullabies, rather than the digital hall of mirrors that lays inside. But after a few listens the artwork feels just right. The drawing’s unsure senses of scale and direction suit the unsure music; both feel multidimensional. Though it doesn’t depict the dead as skeletons, the lines feel skeletal in the same way the music does, stripped to the bones – the 4-4 beats, when they arrive, are dry and hollow-sounding, almost flimsy, like dusty old ribcages. There’s an organic quality, too – the hand-drawn grass and dirt, the bodies and graves – that feels oddly appropriate. A sneeze is sampled and mangled in ‘Oneiroi’, while ‘Melt’ sounds, to use Halo’s own words, like ‘a bunch of MP3s dumped into a vat of acid, all screaming in pain’. Halo’s music has always been less about the internet in and of itself and more about its effect on the human body, as on Quarantine, where her dry, unprocessed vocals sat awkwardly among the busy, kinetic, electric frameworks that surrounded them, that quarantined them.
(A side note: the track titles on this LP are fascinating, little treasure troves of meaning to rummage through. ‘Dr. Echt’, the opener, contains both drecht, meaning ‘a place where ships are pulled or carried across the land’, and echt, meaning ‘true, genuine, authentic’. ‘Onerai’ seems to be a corruption of oneiroi, the dream-hunting Greek gods who were born through parthenogenesis – that is, literally imagined into existence. The sources and meanings, like the music, aren’t quite clear. Does the aggressive and claustrophobic ‘Thrax’ refer to the mythological son of Ares, or the antagonist of the film Osmosis Jones, or the city of windowless rooms in Gene Wolf’s The Book of the New Suns? Or maybe to anthrax?)
Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, also shows an interest in combining rough, organic textures with glossy, highly digitised ones. My favourite album by him is Replica, from 2011. At the time, it felt like a sharp left turn away from the drones and drifts Oneohtrix Point Never had been known for towards glitches, shards of noise, fragments of clipped voices stuttering into the void. But returning to it recently, having become familiar with R Plus Seven and Garden of Delete, the far more turbulent releases that came after it, I was struck by how much drone there actually is on the thing. It opens and closes with drone, after all, and there’s far more drone in the middle than I remember. In a way it feels like the perfect mid-point between the two phases of Lopatin’s music thus far. There’s a kind of duality going on in Replica between these two modes – let’s call them ‘drone’ and ‘glitch’, though I use those terms pretty loosely – which feel like they’re not so much battling each other as reflecting on, and off, each other, like a skeleton reflecting on his own reflection in a shard of mirror.
Except it’s not a skeleton, is it? It’s a man, his hand fleshy and plump, with lines in the knuckles and a shine on the fingernail. The shard acts like a kind of magic mirror, reflecting back the skeleton inside the man, the fragile finger-bones, the skull under his spaghetti-like hair. Flesh and bone reflect on each other, as do glitch and drone. But which sounds map onto which body parts? Do the drones drop out to reveal the glitching, clicking, moving skeleton underneath them, or are the drones the skeleton, the base sounds, and the rest merely so much flesh and dressing, the complex human mess around and on top of them? There are moments when the former feels true (‘Andro’) and moments where the latter feels true (‘Up’).
Fragmentation and chance have increasingly become part and parcel of a Oneohtrix Point Never album, and Replica is the record where they first assert their importance as a compositional technique, as they are in Halo’s Chance of Rain. I don’t mean chance in a kind of procedural way, as in, say, John Cage’s I Ching compositions, but rather the appearance of chance, that sense of melodic fragments interacting in a way that feels spontaneous and unpredictable, that constant sense that the music might suddenly veer off in a direction you weren’t expecting, rather than building in a way that feels logical and predictable. And I feel like this sense of chance – of things unexpectedly being brought together – is one of the key organisational principles of the internet, its skeleton if you like. It is a net of interactions and interventions, a map that allows for almost infinite paths, infinite possible routes of travel. The hyperlink is its most important structural feature – pages linking to pages and ideas to ideas in a way that is both highly structured and somewhat chaotic. That maybe is why Halo and Lopatin feel like such modern composers: their skeletons move like the internet’s does.