Holly Herndon: Movement

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.

Holly Herndon


US Release: 2012-11-13
UK Release: 2012-11-26
Label: RVNG Intl

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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.