December is a little late in the year to welcome a new candidate into the best music of the year chatter. Efforts released in either November or December of any year are always forgotten or simply assumed to be a part of the following year’s releases: it’s very easy to get swept under the rug. Holly Herndon isn’t letting that happen to her. On November 13 she released her RVNG Intl. debut Movement which has stormed the techno and experimental worlds alike: Holly has stepped in as the genre’s new hope.
The seven track LP is a quick roll through vocal performance and mutation, computer geek techno plays, and electronic music card tricks. The title–Movement–is a suggestion of the body, bringing visions of athletic musculature and vocal exercises: Herndon’s focus is on the human body’s performance. Title track “Terminal” eases you into Holly’s world with a vocal piece that is stretched and stretched and stretched until it is nearly mistakable for the hum of an overworked laptop. “Dilato” is a high art cousin to this LP starter and a clear play on distending the voice to shrill scratches and in-synch pitches. This song was my first introduction to Herndon and was cause to perk up at the thought of electronic music digging and digging back toward the experiments they originated from.
As avant garde as she can get, she can and does turn out some ball busters. “Movement” (at top) runs itself closely with alarm sounds and squeezes beautiful vocal sweeps through a fan. It is essentially the song that you would want to have played if you were escaping from zombies on a dance floor. “Fade” (directly above) is clearly the best electronic song of the year, a surprise you will want to build up from after “Terminal.” The song is a complex, layering of vocal chants (The phrase “Reach out your hand.” is folded and unfolded, over and over itself like vocal origami.) underneath powerful synth kicks, bass, and an ending breakdown that no techno genius in Berlin could ever reach. It is complicated, it is fun, and you feel like you need a cigarette after listening to it.
Herndon is so damned good because she is building her own world of academic electronic atop of an already rich history of music in an often obscure genre. Encountering many interviews with her, you find that she is a Tennessee singer who moved to Berlin, discovered techno, and has since dedicated her life to understanding and challenging what singing and music making can be. She is currently studying to be a doctoral student at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics program. Basically she’s getting a doctorate in electronic music: that is how fucking legit Holly Herndon is.
The album is a treasure and a first effort that dares you to question its power. Movement is an on-trend entry into the “doom” house that Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, Laurel Halo, Shed, and more have been making–yet Herndon’s effort deserves to be installed at MOCA. In repeated spins of Movement, you delve into bigger questions related to electronic performance, the female body, and queer theory: in the male dominated worlds of science and electronic music, where does an extremely experimental American female fit in? Herndon is taking cues from historic female and queer electronic artists like Laurie Spiegel and Wendy Carlos and answering this question. Get ready to hear a lot more from Herndon–she’s just getting started.