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Published on June 20th, 2019 | by voxx

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Holly Herndon – PROTO

The electronic adventurer creates her own AI collaborator for her tech-themed third…

Experimental Californian composer Holly Herndon’s third album attempts to offer a counter-narrative to the scare stories about technology. She created an AI entity called Spawn to aid its composition, feeding it primordial sounds and guttural vocal cries (courtesy of a raft of guest singers) to foster machine-human harmony. The joins are seamless: there’s no telling what is Spawn and what is Herndon, although her trademarks – scythe-sharp sounds that cut with the speed and precision of a master sushi chef’s knife – remain intact.

PROTO is well balanced between its human and digital masters. Striking vocal-led songs (‘Frontier’ is a gothic, choral assault, ‘Canaan’ grave and ceremonial) offer marked relief from the more bracing digital assaults: ‘Godmother’, featuring Detroit producer Jlin, starts with a sound like a voice box wobbling jelly-like on a plate, breaking down into spikier, fractal textures as the tension ratchets terrifyingly. ‘Eternal’ is the best song to combine both sides, and is similarly visceral, suggesting a life-force taking shape as Herndon – impersonating a cyborg – searches for purpose in an ever-expanding digital world.

For an attempt at breaking new territory, PROTO sometimes hews close to well-worn dystopian tropes (the perilous clanking of SWIM; the sci-fi glitch of ‘Bridge’), and the child narrator and see-sawing breath sounds of ‘Extreme Love’ are undeniably annoying. But Herndon’s creative restlessness and textural mastery sustain interest across 45 minutes: in ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’, her cyborg narrator adopts a deathly rasp as if drowning in its own pixels, and an uncanny, beguiling silver haze descends.

- By Jake White


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