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LIVE REPORT: Holly Herndon
Robert Barry , July 1st, 2015 13:42

"A private world at once cosy and strange". Robert Barry reports on Herndon's first UK show since the release of her second album Platform, at London's XOYO

Photo by Bennet Perez

Holly Herndon takes the stage to the sound of military helicopters coursing back and forth across the stereo spectrum. It feels strangely like a warzone in here. XOYO is one of those venues that seems to strive after the greatest possible unpleasantness. There is enough fake smoke to agitate a whole municipal fire department. A girl near me collapses to the floor and has to be escorted out.

Amidst the general apocalypse, Herndon starts to sing. Her voice stutters and multiplies through an enfilade of processing. It becomes at once a vast massed cathedral choir of seraphim-simulacra and, at the same time, a close whisper prickling the back of your neck with murmured intimacies. Sounds, unplaceable, of machinery not yet invented but already breaking down ricochet spastically through the room as the crowd heaves and starts to bounce. The rapture descends.

Scarcely three quarters of an hour earlier support act Amnesia Scanner had been up there themselves, seeming somehow both less vulnerable and less commanding. Sonically, they recalled as much the Hyperdub back catalogue as the sound design of the Transformers films. Tracks evoked a chrome-plated future where it is always night and always raining, where metal fetishists dance languorously to concerts led by service droids gone rogue, their voice chips warped and queasily corrupted.

This was widescreen music, big and encompassing, made by people who have done their homework picking up techniques from acousmatic sound art and fidgety urban club styles. Yet it remained oddly faceless. I was left impressed more than really engrossed. Like, ooh nice plug-ins, dude. Love the way you deftly manipulated those waveforms.

Holly Herndon is something else.

The first time I saw Herndon live was a little less than two years ago at a small-ish digital arts centre in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. At the time I had been growing disenchanted with contemporary music for seeming to abandon art's claims on the future. But Herndon's music seemed to offer a fresh take on modern technology, promising urgent new utopias with every scintillating chord.

Her debut album Movement had proffered a new understanding of the laptop as the most intimate instrument ever invented. Live, she had built up tentatively and organically a skein of strange sounds and cobwebbed rhythms from processes that had seemed to unfold clearly before our eyes even though they took place within the black box of her computer using a software environment that I knew I would probably never understand.

Fast-forward to the present show and things have changed somewhat. Post-Snowden, Herndon's music has grown darker, her relationship with technology has got more complicated. Hence, perhaps, the helicopters and the general sense of unease at work. I felt several times during the show that she seemed to be fighting with something, whether the equipment itself or something more personal. As she gestured repeatedly at the monitors, appealing to the sound engineer, it became clear that this struggle was no mere conceptual fillip. This was evidently a tough gig for the performer.

But the music, oh, the music. There was nothing tentative about tonight's performance. Everything felt perfectly assured. Tracks like last year's single 'Chorus' breathed with excoriating intensity. Sounds dive out and reach in, fizzing, crunching, rustling with occult powers. The whole room felt aglow as we were pulled inexorably into a private world at once cosy and strange. The future flickered briefly into view.