Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: As of this exact moment, nearly halfway through 2015, Holly Herndon’s Platform is, hands down, my favorite album of the year. This will not be an objective and critical appraisal of the work at hand. I am here to gush, and gush I will.
In a musical landscape littered with retrofuturist, cyberpunk/vaporwave PC Music detritus and escapist, curatorial examinations of bygone eras reminiscent more of Civil War reenactments than genuine musical movements, Herndon has done the unimaginable: She’s broken through the music-as-cosplay formula and made a record that is thoroughly, undeniably modern.
That’s not to say the formula is totally without precedent. The heavily vocal-based cut-up formula stretches back to landmark avant-garde recordings like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and more recent releases like Björk’s Medúlla. The glitchy, shape-shifting beats bring to mind the genius of Richard D. James. But it’s in the conceptual elements, and the execution of those elements, where Platform proves itself to be a work worthy of attention and praise in its own right.
This album is a tribute to the inescapable influence of the Internet as both a tool to drive us apart and to bring us together. It’s an examination of where this very intimate part of ourselves, the screen through which we see the world, intersects with both commerce and government. There are samples of household appliances, Skype sessions, YouTube clips, and more. Listening on Spotify, there were one or two moments where I was unsure if I was hearing the service’s rather abysmal advertisements or the artist’s satirical commentary on them. It’s hard not to feel like that’s kind of the point.
Nonetheless, this is no Luddite, Kaczynski-esque damning of technological advancement: Outside of the obvious fact that this is largely a laptop-based, electronic album, Herndon has also used technology to open up her creative process for this record to various collaborators more than ever before—not just audio and visual artists, but poets and theorists.
Holly started her musical trajectory in choirs in Tennessee, followed by a long period in Berlin’s minimal-techno scene, before she moved to her current home of San Francisco, where she studies as a doctoral candidate at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. These varied influences meld beautifully on Platform. Issues of class inequality and surveillance are explored with exceptional depth and deftness. “Lonely at the Top,” in particular, takes techniques from ASMR to a place that is over-the-top and unsettling to the average person, but which seem like they would be almost natural to the “intended,” elite one-percenter audience. It’s like a purely aural episode of Black Mirror.
In interviews, Herndon has made it abundantly clear what her personal opinions are in regards to surveillance, capitalism, and monoculture. I encourage you to seek them out, as I couldn’t possibly summarize in this space the depth and breadth of thought that goes into creating a work this detailed and intense. All I can do is implore you to listen. Records this timely and important don’t happen frequently enough.
Platform is available now from RVNG INTL. and 4AD.