, June 2nd, 2015 11:36
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.