Holly Herndon: Proto (4AD) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, November 15th, 2019  

Holly Herndon

PROTO

4AD

Jun 10, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In this age of homogeny, phrases like "experimental" and "avant garde" are thrown around liberally, usually to add conceptual weight to music that is often anything but. Holly Herndon is an artist that truly fits the bill, pushing boundaries both sonically and conceptually whilst retaining a strong grasp on accessibility. This is no different on third album PROTO, her most adventurous collection to date.

Herndon has always used technological processes and systems as a prism to refract the light of her human voices and input, and this is taken to its zenith here. On PROTO machinery gets its own voice with Spawn, Herndon's self-created AI, joining the creative ranks. Created with AI expert Jules LaPlace, Spawn is a "nascent machine intelligence" trained to interpret audio, using neural networks to respond to the music he/she hears.

Considered, not a tool, but a creative partner, Spawn is given equal precedence with the human collaborators (a choral choir feature throughout). This harks back to the most forward-thinking, classic electronic music experimentalism. This is sound as hypothesis.

Machine processing of human voice is nothing new. For 50 years it has been a frequent feature at the core of electronic exploration, but with this AI equality, this is something new. A mainstream album working at the sharpest, cutting edge of technological philosophy.

So far, so sci-fi. But strangely, PROTO is Herndon's most human sounding record so far, steeped in musical traditions that have been part of humanity since ancient times. Storytelling through sung voice and engaging sounds. In questioning the place of machine intelligence in our human world, Herndon has created an optimistic piece that really gets to the core of our species place in all this.

Even on "Extreme Love" where a child's spoken word monologue reframes humanity as simply a vessel for a bacterial new species that will carry on after we expire, the message is beautifully optimistic. Framed as an integral part of this ecosystem and the planet's (or universe's) future, it moves the narrative away from our destruction of everything to one of creation.

Musically, PROTO is a far more accessible listen than the lofty concepts would suggest. Opening salvo "Birth" is a glitchy, choral wonder permeated by distorted machine speech, a point of singularity between all the performance elements. "Eternal" is a tribal tune with cascading beats and treated choral chimes, "Frontier" is traditional folk refracted by machine musicians from the future, and "Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt" is Auto-Tune technology taken to its peak, creating a floating, wondrous flow of electronic voice.

"Canaan" and "Evening Shades" are live recordings of Spawn's training process, a call and response between human and machine. These fascinating documents illustrate a new intelligence learning and creating as it does. It shows the start point of a work that takes recognizable human voice, which is then fragmented and rebuilt as something new. Herndon has again challenged what music can be.

PROTO is a rare work that matches incredible conceptual ideas with accessibility for even the most passive of listeners. Impenetrable aural academia this is not. This album makes you think more and more with each listen as its layered brilliance unravels in new, exciting ways. (www.hollyherndon.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10



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