Listening to Holly Herndon can be a bit disorienting at first. The avant-garde composer’s career has been defined by pushing the boundaries of electronic music, and with her jarring compositions and unintelligible lyrics, it’s almost like listening to music sung in a language you don’t speak. However, there is a meticulous method to her madness. With her third studio album, Herndon has an unlikely collaborator, an AI program named “Spawn” she’s taught to interpret sound and respond with its own warped, eerie vocalization. As she examines the complex relationship between technology and art, Proto finds her at Herndon most experimental, and yet somehow also at her most accessible.
With this ambitious project, Herndon invites us to witness the various stages in her creative process. Right from the murky onset, “Birth” opens the album with a distant, droning echo, as we embark on a journey and observe Spawn learning to speak in real time. Despite what skeptics may think, this undertaking goes far beyond simply pressing the correct sequence of buttons on a laptop. Herndon resourcefully includes live training sessions, such as the haunting ethereal harmonies of “Canaan” and the confident chanting of “Evening Shades,” which sound less like scientific exploration than they do traditional folk singing. As the record progresses, we see Spawn truly come alive and interact with the musical landscape in its own right.
By its very nature, Proto feels a bit chaotic, both in the way it’s intended to and through the accidental results of its unexpected convergence of tones. Herndon moves from the relatively straightforward and appetizing (spastic, euphoric “Eternal,” celebratory, developing “Swim,” melodic, swirling “Last Gasp”) to the harsh and combative (sharp, metallic interlude “Bridge,” industrial, insect-like “Godmother”) in a dizzying blur that has no use for easy transitions. Often, the conflicting aesthetics will share the same polarized track, as with “Crawler,” a pastoral nature dreamscape that turns increasingly nightmarish as it unfolds. But the evolution can work in the opposite direction as well, as severe flavors become more palatable on angelic, tribal club track “Alienation” or “Frontier,” with its piercing choir that gives way to a lively dance beat.
Far from the dystopian sermon projects of this ilk often end up promoting, Proto continuously finds humanity in artificial intelligence. Holly Herndon isn’t scolding us for our relationship with technology; in fact, she’s celebrating its capabilities in regards to the arts. Capturing both its anxiety and its elation, she leaves us with hope for what’s still to come. What’s more, this bold, offbeat record boasts some of her most seductive tunes to date. Perhaps the future is finally catching up with her.