Given the fact that her most significant performance to date came about as part of the Polish iteration of experimental-leaning Unsound Festival, it seems a safe bet that Holly Herndon’s crowds don’t generally feature dudes running around trying to score molly. Such, however, is the nature of the bump that a sudden groundswell of press coverage can give to a burgeoning electronic producer. Taking an academically minded approach to the traditionally dancefloor focused techno world, Herndon’s debut LP for RVNG Intl., Movement, represents a fresh take on electronic tropes. The female vocals throughout (Herndon’s own) bring a warped nausea that fellow producers often avoid. Instead of playing toward the sensual, a common trick for those wanting to make bodies move, Herndon aims for something deeply unsettling.
It’s an untraditional approach to say the least and one that makes curious the presence of the kids stumbling through the crowd mumbling “mollymollymollymollymolllllyyyyy.” I’m not quite sure what they were expecting, but when Herndon took to the stage and launched the opening hiss of “Terminal”, one can only imagine their surprise.
Feeding her live vocals through Max/Msp patches and rendering percussive what would likely be subtle hums, Herndon used “Terminal” as a striking opener to a set full of faithful renditions of most of Movement’s tracks. Both in “Terminal” and through the majority of the set, Herndon made the most of 285 Kent’s bolstered soundsystem and made corporeal the terror that marks the album. Horrifying static becomes eardrum-shattering, bass-y voices become bowel loosening, sharp intakes of breath become horror movie soundtracks drilled directly into your spinal cord. While the mood of Movement is decidedly one of nausea and malaise, Herndon’s live set, aided by a substantial offering of subwoofers, makes imminent the threat of the record.
It’s this last fact that renders Herndon’s mode of performance mostly moot. Rockists will perhaps always deride the use of the laptop as a main method of performative action, but a set from Herndon might be enough to sway even the staunchest of purists. She hovers plaintively behind a Macbook on a stand, but if only for the sheer physical dancefloor terror of the sounds she conjures from it, the instrument itself doesn’t matter. A staunch supporter of the computer as a live instrument, Herndon makes a well-developed case for it, if only because those aforementioned vocal patches are so central to her live show and seem inaccessible in any other way. Each of her movements seems purposeful and important and each track’s transcendent weirdness is magnified by the physical presence that only a room full of powerful speakers can bring.
Though early power problems staved off the immersive powers of “Terminal”, later tracks picked up in that category. “Breathe”’s pitch warped gasps were intoxicatingly bizarre, snapping a generally talkative crowd to rapt attention before launching into “Fade”, the early single and easily most accessible tune for the record. Herndon’s set was a sort of head nodding tease, particularly (I would imagine) for those anticipating a molly-appropriate set, but over the course of “Fade” the voices were drowned out, the bass kicked up and bodies began to move. It’s a tricky prospect, performing live a group of songs so diverse and challenging as those found on Movement, especially when the mode of performance is so physically restricting, but it’s clear that Herndon is already comfortable in these tracks, triggering loops and applying with absolute precision. The immediate effect was one of a tangible, nauseating lurch. And how often does any live act provoke a response so visceral? If those kids found their drugs, I can only hope that Herndon didn’t scare them too bad.