Holly Herndon is relatively anomalous in the music community, for believing that artificial intelligence can be a welcome addition to the compositional process rather than a threat to it.
On Proto she co-created and utilised an AI program called Spawn, which was taught how to understand a cappella singing – as heard in the two ‘live training’ interludes – and while the concept might sound wacky it makes a lot of sense in an era where singers are becoming increasingly inseparable from their specific vocal production setup.
The album opens with the brief but immersive Birth, full of wordless vocals twisted by granular synthesis and garbled attempts at speech, following on with the epic Alienation. The drums pound, the sub-bass wubs, the synths flash like neon lights, and the atmosphere is thick with a voice that sounds like it’s laden with auto-tune but is most likely a deeper bond between woman and machine. The album sticks to this sort of sound fairly rigidly, and as a result is slightly more cohesive than Herndon’s 2015 full-length, Platform.
A particular highlight is when the tempo is ratcheted up on Frontier, with processed chanting bouncing around the track’s punchy rhythms: there are lead vocals and background vocal loops, but all blend into the same euphoric cacophony of sound. Meanwhile, the record’s only misstep is the Jlin collaboration Godmother, which relies entirely on sounds produced by Spawn. The trouble is these sounds are distinctly unappealing, and all the rhythmic interplay in the world can’t change that.
Proto is a very distinctive record, and its sound design is as astounding as we’ve come to expect from Herndon. It’s also deeply powerful, as its crystalline tones call to mind the ghost in the machine, and leaves the listener wondering what further symbiosis can be achieved.