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Holly Herndon
Platform Laurie Tuffrey , June 2nd, 2015 11:36

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It's fair to say that modern communication can be a deeply wearing arena. Internet fatigue is a well-established concept, not to mention the constant cycle of being in-between endogenous opioid rushes as text messages, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, etc. alert notifications arrive or the fact that most of us stop breathing at the point of opening up our email inboxes. Even beyond the physical impact of hyper-connectivity is the cycle of trends, memes and whatever other vehicles there are out there, notionally initiated as a quick-buck laugh, most frequently appropriated for sneering humour and withered moralising outrage. When this collides with weightier issues, it frequently feels like we dwindle into a stagnation of apathy. Or, as the San Francisco-based composer and musician Holly Herndon put it when talking to the Quietus' Christian Eede: "Cynicism, sarcasm and mockery are the main ways in which we seem to deal with the shit storm that has been delivered to us, economically and politically speaking."

On paper, then, the concept of an album that comes so consummately out of this context may not be the most appealing. (You only need to look at the post-everything irony clusterfuck of PC Music to get a sense of that). In reality, Herndon's second full-length proper, Platform, which does just that, is one of the best records you'll hear this year. From its title upwards, the record feels like a paean to the constructive possibilities of connection. Platform represents a move away from the solitary laptop experiments of Herndon's previous album, 2012's Movement, to a record that's collaborative from the outset: the players on the album come from various backgrounds, not just audio and visual artists, but theorists and writers, and include Mat Dryhurst, Herndon's long-term collaborator and partner, whose 'net-concrete' online update on musique concrète was a key pillar of the album's sonic set-up, word-colliding Twitter poet Spencer Longo and Dutch design studio Metahaven among them. (Fittingly, the full list was indexed by Herndon in a kind of emoji-gram.) With the academic eloquence of someone studying as a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, Herndon explains: "It's about opening up my practice and finding ways to magnify the people whose work I really respect."

As much as this egalitarian approach could have easily descended into a kind of designed-by-committee tech-miscellany, what Herndon achieves is an album of ten disparate pieces that sound unified, knit together by the composer's wholehearted embrace of contemporary culture. For one, it's resulted in some of her finest tracks: opener 'Interference' is juddering and strobey, glancing partly at techno but eschewing hammering kicks in favour of Herndon's voice skating across the speaker cones in myriad iterations, as if she'd been able to convert the silent information exchange of an internet connection into pure, vocalised sound. 'Chorus' seems to pay even more heed to the love of club music Herndon has, and is entirely undimmed as an out-and-out banger well over a year on from its first release. 'Morning Sun' and 'An Exit', meanwhile, come closest to songs in a more traditional sense, the former a love song about leaving behind a partner to tour, which travels through an Enya-like (park any snootiness you have about her right here) canyon of massed voices, clashing in gorgeous harmony. The latter takes a leap from Suhail Malik, the Goldsmiths-based academic, and his idea of an "exit strategy from current conditions instead of an escape mechanism" and turns it into a pop song bathed in radiant LED glow, soaring on a chorus line of, "When there is nothing to gain, there is nothing to lose". It also maybe best encases Herndon's idiosyncratic sonic signature, a kinetic, digitised machine-churn of beats and voices, almost violently restless, that seems hard-wired to prevent the songs from ever feeling old; listen, time and again, and they resist settling down into well-worn sonic furrows.

But beyond this, the most intriguing element of the album is Herndon's clear-sighted approach to taking established notions and practices and up-ending them. When 'Home' first arrived late last year, it addressed the theme of NSA surveillance, but complicated it - can our laptops and computers remain the deeply personal inventories of information we allow them to be if they're just two-way mirrors for governments and corporations? 'Locker Leak', meanwhile, cuts up text written by Herndon and Longo - the latter well-versed in fragmentary poetics, as his Twitter account shows - revolving around advertising speak, but renders the words absurd through juxtaposition, ranging from the consumer-sexual overtones of, "Who lasts longest? Glass lasts longest", to a meaningless litany of sales persuasion: "Pressed in distressed denim for easy shares... Claimed and active for salvaged flesh..."

Perhaps the most effective is 'Lonely At The Top', which takes the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos posted on YouTube and redirects their intent. While the ASMR community's main aim is to produce videos which use specific 'trigger' sounds - whispering, finger-tapping, page-flipping - to stimulate pleasurable sensations, here, this intimacy is inverted as corporate commentary. Drawing on the common ASMR trope of a spa treatment, the listener assumes the role of an anonymous, big bucks chief exec, with ASMR-tist Claire Tolan delivering increasingly outlandish praise: "Not everyone has these ideas, let alone your charisma… You naturally attract possibility… All of your achievements just seem like your natural right". Herndon and Tolan gently skew the experience: the sound effects of hands massaging skin and lip smacks seem to be that bit too loud and last just a touch too long, while Tolan's speech sounds filtered, uncanny, almost of a piece with the degraded voices that populate the rain-pelted futurescape of Burial's 'Come Down To Us'. Rather than addressing the visible inequalities of 21st-century capitalism, it talks to the mindset that gets us there; one can only assume that the devastating truth underlying this is that, while the praise showered on the client seems to most of us risible, there are some out there for whom this could easily be used as an ASMR video in one of their original purposes, as sleep aids, merely echoing what they assume are accepted truths.

It's easy enough to denigrate artists and bands that have their feet firmly lodged in musical past. By the same token, it wouldn't take much to over-praise those who attempt to innovate. But this album feels genuinely new. "I'm trying to be my own archetype", said Herndon in another interview, and with Platform, she's fully realised this. In fleeting part, it recalls others - the humanised, non-mechanical electronics have a touch of Arca and the Tri Angle roster, the hard-edged slabs of sound have the heft of Herndon's personal favourite Mika Vainio, the manic rhythmic overload has maybe a hint of footwork - but these are only glimpses. In so solidly refuting musical clichés, it can genuinely lay claim to the oft-used description forward-facing and is in itself an antidote to the cynicism Herndon was speaking about. As the final vocal loops of 'New Ways To Love' dissipate, it's hard not to feel inspired.

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Finnegans Wake
Jun 2, 2015 12:19pm

This album is a near masterpiece and one of the very best of the year. Every listen gives new wonders.

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Jun 2, 2015 12:33pm

Interesting concepts, good interview etc but I found the music falls short in comparison. Multi tracked and pitch shifted vocals are not new or exciting. the shuffly programming neither. It's just an average laptop production with all its clichés ( or idiosyncracies to be more polite), And there's no groundbreaking sound design in sight in my opinion.

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Jun 2, 2015 12:39pm

Really enjoyable record. 'Lonely At The Top' was pretty unsettling listening through headphones in the dark.

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Jun 2, 2015 1:13pm

In reply to Baikonour:

I'm afraid I agree... it's a pleasant enough listen but there's nothing happening therein that'd drag me back for a 3rd or 4th sitting, it sounds like a decade-old Matmos LP in places & I'm at a loss to see what the fuss (i.e. Wire mag front covers) is all about?

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Jun 2, 2015 3:08pm

In reply to ROOKSBY.:


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Jun 2, 2015 4:23pm

I've changed my mind regarding Herndon's music - I enjoy it. If nothing else then the production is a cut above the competition.

The worst enemies of this music are its fans and promoters, who make it sound like the great white hope of academic relevance pieced together by focus group to illustrate Issues. Herndon is clearly One Of Us. Now ask yourself who you are.

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Pirate Jenny Baudrillardo
Jun 2, 2015 5:08pm

Talks a good game, music is unneccessary, she'll be in academia within five-- probably less-- years, everyone goes home barefoot.

Docked a notch for ** NOT ** covering Randy Newman "Lonely At The Top" though surely it's both sub-text and erstatz semiotext of her entire, how you say, ooo-vruh, yes?

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Butcher Pete
Jun 2, 2015 5:09pm

Laurie, you misspelled MEATHAVEN. Not 'meta-haven' (gawd)... MEATHAVEN

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Sister Sludge
Jun 2, 2015 7:16pm

"Lonely At The Toupe" is more like it; fucking white people stroke yourselves waaaaaay too much but awwww, she's got a wig hat with "ginger" bangs. Un-fucking-godly.

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Hod Carriers Local 282
Jun 2, 2015 7:18pm

Laurie is easily gulled but Holly, please-- step back and try to be your own fucking linotype first, then we'll talk.

And don't play East Tennessee dumb either, we know it's a cornball act. Hooray for Dollywood!

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Jun 2, 2015 7:19pm

In reply to Sister Sludge:

Is that racist crap, or just crap, it's difficult to tell?

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Dan John
Jun 2, 2015 10:25pm

This is a great album, so there.

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Jun 3, 2015 12:00am

In reply to :

Yeah, the 'racism' against white Stanford PdD girls is terrible-- and getting worse. "Funny" Quietus writes about black women electronic musicians... never? Never ever? Of course, I don't know how many black women are in the Stanford PhD music program... do you? The album is trite but oooh, such bangs! You could gentle brush them away from her eyes, a gesture of empathy & 'archteypical'...

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Don Juan of Dumfries
Jun 3, 2015 12:03am

In reply to Dan John:

album is not even mediocre but any ofay Yank who wants to be her own phagocyte can ride my boat up the River Nith-- throbbing, truly.

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Stepehn "Hot & Cold" Heros
Jun 3, 2015 12:05am

In reply to Finnegans Wake:

And she's her own plebiscite! No wonder she goes to Stanford...

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Matthew McKinnon
Jun 3, 2015 4:36pm

In reply to Baikonour:

I agree.

I liked it, and the musical content is surprisingly strong [i.e. I thought it had good songs], but the crispy, feet-crunching-on-snow textures and stacked, processed vocals etc etc weren't groundbreaking at all. This might have been released ten years ago and sounded much the same.

A Bjork collaboration to follow, I expect.

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No Refugee
Jun 3, 2015 5:41pm

In reply to Stepehn "Hot & Cold" Heros:

I don't think you know what that word means.

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Jun 5, 2015 3:38pm

Sounds like a PhD thesis piece with some fillers. Not bad but not original sonically either.

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