When Holly Herndon dropped the astounding “Fade” late last year as a streaming track in advance of her second album Movement, it was a bit of a ruse. Here was a track that pulsed and popped with club beats and gyrating synths. It contained multitudes in its tender yet guarded composition — industrial fortitude, immaculate production, and brittle melancholy vocals. FX shrapnel discharged against the steady sirenic wails, piercing it in places and slingshotting panned reverberation in others, synths in the backdrop hurling up and down scales in violent loops of crescendo. It was everything critics had promised Laurel Halo to be, femininity as durable force in friction against the obdurate ratiocination of the machine, transmogrifying its armored frame into a malleable liquid of a mesmerizing, though still brutal, luster.
Had everyone who rushed out to grab the album gone home and heard seven different variations of the same when the needle dropped onto Movement, I doubt you’d have heard one complaint. But what we have instead is something far weirder, far more complex, and probably more interesting for it. With Movement, Herndon has earned the attention she has already received, and regardless of where she goes from here, her next steps will be worth some time and indulgence after the remarkable study she has laid forth before us.
However, there’s an element of critic-bait at play that can’t be overlooked. Herndon comes pre-poised to engage the sensibilities of the Wire magazine-reading, theory-steeped mindset. Standing in press photos with mesmerizing blue eyes and orange hair, adorned in stark monochrome, Herndon seems like a transplant from 70s sci-fi. While her gender or geographical origins shouldn’t matter in the post-everything world, her Midwestern background and the fact that she’s a woman effortlessly trouncing the boys in a male-dominated practice (at a time when the public have finally acknowledged that we’re in debt to Oram, Spiegel, Ciani, et al.) are nourishing factoids to brandish in support of her cause. She studied composition at Stanford and then worked as a manager of a music-based nonprofit for children. She’s even cited Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” as a major influence on Movement. Like Burial, Daniel Lopatin, and others before her, it’s like she was molded from within the critical complex, stroking our sweaty little keypad fingers with the smooth caress of a knowing stance.
Therefore, it’s important to note that as juicy as the above anecdotes are, her music does stand outside of them on firm ground. In addition to dressing the part, she walks the walk and, notably, talks the talk. This is an album predicated on the foregrounding of the voice as both instrument and element. With her passions split between dance and experimental music, Herndon opts for neither while arguing for both. Neither genre is known to be principally vocal-focused, but the voice can be and often is central in sectors of each. Movement pivots between the vocal science of dance’s looped fragments and the operative laboring of the larynx by the academic crowd, employing these and still more methods of manipulation to color and occupy her productions. It’s sonics and texture she’s interested in here, not words (though some of her utterances appearance to have derived from speech/singing), making hers a Lettrist proposal, chopping down sound until it is fully divorced from the linguistic baggage of culture and exists purely as an abstract.
If Ligeti and co. found ways to make the voice sound unfamiliar and alien, Herndon aligns her slices with rhythmic elements or reproduces her filters with a transparency that lets one hear the humanity underneath. Hence, her music is not wholly other, but slightly uncanny. Emotive resonance is reduced to shadows and fractions, great distress modulated into a series of interchangeable mobile parts. It’s Herndon herself whose voice we hear throughout, until the listener reaches her oddball time-stretched duet with tenor Bruce Rameker, “Dilato”, at the end of the album. Yet, Herndon has spread herself wide in the album’s narrative. Within moments, she can move from being a piece of scenery, a train horn in the distant horizon (“Control And”), to the cyborg locomotive conductor steaming down the track (“Movement”).
This is not an album of wild eclecticism, though, nor of extremism. Herndon doesn’t flirt with harsh noise or barely perceptible minimalism. Instead, she chooses to temper her mixes by introducing unease and unexpected tension. There’s a sense of a control system being at play, but not one that those coming to the album for the first time will be able to figure out. That said, it’s a decidedly accessible album for such a conceptually estranged one.
At the heart of Movement is “Breathe”, which arrives with a violent inhalation immediately following “Fade”. As she sucks in the air, she pulls in all manner of digital asbestos with her; neon albuterol and fiberoptic circuit board flakes condense in the ether and are subsumed. She holds for what seems to be an impossibly long time, the gasp amounting to over 20 seconds of dead silence immediately following her most approachable track. It’s a bold move, particularly given that opener “Terminal” with its rubbery echo laboratory of buzz drone and skittering percussion seems to be stationed to set up “Fade”. “Breathe” puts a cold stop to the momentum of the album, only to assert a new dynamic as a symphony of Herndons dance in and out of each other in exasperation, some samples becoming jagged and worn like variable bitrate MP3s with sloppy encoding, others moaning like the undead, forced out of the closure of temporality. Herndon really puts herself through the digital ringer on Movement, and entrusts her voice to the machine. In doing so, she’s achieved a beautiful and harrowing symbiosis worth listening to again and again.