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Holly Herndon: Platform - review

Jul 16, 2015 Music

HollyHerndonAlong with the overrated Laurel Halo, Holly Herndon has become the flag-bearer for a new kind of female musician — celebrated in all the right places for her deft marriage of DIY experimental electronica and clever manipulation of vocal fragments.

But that hardly makes you want to hear it, right? It’s true that Herndon takes musical computer geekery to new levels. She is, after all, studying as a doctoral candidate at Stanford’s Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. So when you slap on this platter, you get what you expect, but also much, much more.

Yes, there’s a morphing stereo field of electronic bugs and insects chirruping away in rhythm, with a sheen of ambient gold wheat gently blowing in the metaphoric wind. There are crisp beats, too; beats that sound like giant hammers smashing into bone and sinew, and which betray a past making techno for the dance floor.

The more, then? Herndon’s brilliance is found in the way she turns her precision programming into something engaging and even, on tracks like “Chorus”, an abstracted, kaleidoscoped collage that reveals itself to be an actual song. Yes, as diffuse and refracted as it may first appear, there’s pop music in here, somewhere, along with mordant echoes of the wordless vocals of both The Swingle Singers and Philip Glass in minimalist guise.

It’s a big fat sexist red herring that female musicians need their “voice” to connect emotionally, and sheer coincidence that vocal sounds — if not words — are intrinsic to Herndon’s art. Björk uses her voice because she can, and it allows her to make an eloquent map of her overtly emotive world. Herndon’s concerns are elsewhere: “systemic inequality, surveillance states and neo-feudalism”, according to her blurb. So she’s not wailing about love and its loss, then, but processing guest voices into an incredible, almost endless layering, one in which those voices are hers to mould into her choral canvas, or as a kind of sonic texturing agent — a musical emulsifier.

What a shock, in an era defined by TV talent quests and fame as endgame, to hear something as waywardly subversive as Platform, a record that proves that the idea of pop music is as malleable as it ever was, and that there is life in it yet beyond the fashion dome. And it’s a record that turns technology on itself as a weapon. Virtual sedition has never sounded more seductive.

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