Holly Herndon – PROTO (4 stars)

Holly Herndon – PROTO

Third full-length album from the electronic pioneer

It's not surprising that Holly Herdon's new album doesn't make for the lightest listening. Her previous release, 2015's Platform, interrogated the 'platformisation' of culture, and was described by Herndon as a 'pop trojan horse' – nuanced concepts explored through pop sensibilities. An exploration of the 'protocol era', her new release PROTO deals with the most complex ideological battles concerning our very existence. Although still rooted in electronic dance music, with throbbing bass and dubstep-y drops, PROTO pushes further towards the more challenging, experimental edges of Herndon's sound.

A constant, underlying tension runs through the album, which sometimes emerges in euphoria on tracks such as 'Eternal', as well as swarming fury like on 'Alienation'. The first release comes on 'Crawler', a dissonant and unnerving soundscape that ends with a smattering of plaintive voices asking 'why am I so lost?', in what could be a chorus to millennial alienation. Yet PROTO is concerned with exactly the opposite of isolation.

Herndon has a long history of working collaboratively, and in this new project she extends her creative circle to include a partner of her own making, built using machine learning technology. From the opening track 'Birth' to the closing 'Last Gasp', PROTO traces the life of Herndon's A.I. 'baby' named 'Spawn'. In partnership with a vocal ensemble, Herndon trained Spawn to understand call-and-response singing, using folk inspired melodies to stage a contemporary, quasi-religious ritual (snippets of which can be heard on tracks 'Canaan' and 'Evening Shades').

This is truly experimental music in its position of openness and enquiry, its foray into untouched sonic domains, and in its propositions for the future. With PROTO, Herndon acknowledges that the narratives we create around technologies serve in producing and stabilising their social reality, and proposes a protocol for a future with human and technological communion at its centre.

Out Fri 10 May on 4AD.

Holly Herndon: PROTO

A hybrid of studio project and touring band, Herndon is joined by an expanded vocal ensemble, her nascent machine intelligence creation Spawn and a newly developed A/V experience, to perform music from her third album PROTO. Herndon and artist and philosopher Matthew Dryhurst and ensemble developer Jules LaPlace have…