[sic] Magazine

Holly Herndon – PROTO

The future can be frightening, but why worry now? It’ll be ages ‘til the future happens, right? Wrong. PROTO is electronic whizz Holly Herndon’s follow-up to 2015’s Platform and it’s so futuristic that it kinda makes everything else seem obsolete immediately. Continuing Platform’s concerns over technological misuse, it’s a sonic exploration of the positives of machine learning delivered in tandem with the creeping unease of ever-more-human AI. The PhD Computer Research in Music and Acoustics graduate doesn’t stop there though for, in partnership once more with husband Matthew Dryhurst (on Platform he designed a web-browsing and audio-gathering programme that randomly spat back Herndon’s search history by way of song lyrics), she gives birth to artificial life in the form of Spawn, a programme fed digitally manipulated choral harmonies from which it then stutters back its own creations. Charting Spawn’s “Birth” through to its “Last Gasp”, PROTO is a fascinating 45 minutes. It’s also a strangely beautiful and generally optimistic glimpse at what’s to come, an Avant-pop laptop hymnal that frequently feels like Herndon has beaten contemporary pop experimentalist Björk to the punch with many of her ideas.

Platform and its predecessor Movement felt like discovery. PROTO feels like a wild uncorking of potential. Interwoven into the bleeding edge comes the centuries old, Appalachian a cappella sung in Sacred Harp rounds that put the human touch firmly back into the modern gospel mix and the result is one of pure celebration. Gushing forth too comes an otherworldly collage of clipped vocals and compressed harmonies, whip-crack beats and head-spinning percussion. Carrying encoded messages like New Age helices, heavily manipulated electronic cadence snakes its way across an otherwise minimal template in “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt”, for example, while “Bridge” is a scrambled interception of cross-channel radio interference as piped at the gates of heaven. Strong melodies hold fractured multi-tracking together, corrupted early stand-out “Alienation” a giddy city-scape of neon magnitude where all the sense crowd for the attention simultaneously.

Spawn’s haunting live training sessions with a multitude of different female voices intersperse the flow, lyrics purposefully rendered indistinct so that their tonal language carries more weight than their linguistic content. Lurching in and out of punchy future-pop and more abstract statements, PROTO and Spawn remain, however, as oddly human as their original programmers. The busy pitch-shifting of “Eternal” resembles one such human in the form of Amber Coffman (once of Dirty Projectors) and her notoriously challenging backing, whereas “SWIM” is a surprising refined take on the same theme – more Julianna Barwick with a ghost in her shell on this occasion than Herndon the high priestess of homoevolutis. Pitted alongside beat-master Jlin on disorientating first single “Godmother”, however, with whom Herndon will soon be performing at the hotly anticipated MIF Queens of the Electronic Underground event, Spawn wildly chops and skews Herndon’s spoken training into a confetti of staccato beats. At the other end of the scale and plunging back into the world of ASMR, “Extreme Love” in turn deploys a creepy, whispering child narrator like the one that opens Liquid Swords, her words this time an ominous look at the future of mankind in the unforgiving reaches of space and its inevitable, cyborg-like fusion with computational life. There probably won’t be a more likeable album of such smarts for years.

Best track: “Alienation”

~PROTO is released May 10th 2019 via 4AD.~