Holly Herndon’s third album sees the voice and electronic synergist take her craft to new heights. The album title PROTO is short for “protocol” and concerns the rules of engagement of new technology, self-identity and how the human meshes with others around us in our new electronic age.
As with previous albums Movement (2012) and Platform (2015), the music of PROTO itself presents these questions and also proffers a kind of response as well. Key to the generation of her music is Spawn – the A.I. member of her “band” this time around. Spawn somehow processes the input and shapes it in myriad ways that Herndon continues to sculpt to create the tracks.
The majority of PROTO is comprised largely of shorter, more experimental tracks, and anchored by several longer, standout tracks. Eternal’s broad palette makes use of voices that sound drawn from across the globe, with the percussion stomping out a primal groove. Frontier channels a similar world vibe, with a full-fledged chorus moving and shifting to a steady beat. There’s a lot going on in these tracks, including beats, electronics and a panoply of different voices that delight as much as they challenge.
Auto-tune is one way to modify a voice, but the use of Spawn and other voice treatments can add emotional depth and push the voice to draw out the individual even more. This is heard on slower tracks such as Alienation, and the more classic auto-tune sounding Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, where voices are fused, splintered, stretched and everything in between. Spacey number Crawler plays out as a mini-opera, but does highlight a kind of choral fatigue when taking in PROTO in one long listen.
The meaning of the spoken word Extreme Love almost sounds as though A.I. entities are dimly recalling their distant human ancestors they’ve left behind long ago. It’s a somewhat chilling think piece, whereas the Jlin collaboration Godmother has more of a direct affect on the body with its rattling beats and panicked inhalations and gasps.
More classic-sounding Herndon tracks are SWIM with its steady rhythm and Julia Holter-like phrasing. Closer Last Gasp is also a highlight, with a heavy but curvy bass line, steady beat and some of the nicest singing on the album where Herndon’s clear voice is squarely in the foreground and not part of a larger chorus, lending some individuality to the song.
An album like PROTO is only possible owing to Herndon’s mastery of electronics and programming fused with an ear for voices and melody. Herndon’s music has a restless experimentalism to it, searching for meaning at the intersection of technology and the soul. PROTO pushes these boundaries the furthest yet, making for a strange fusion of human and machine art.