On each of her albums, Holly Herndon thoughtfully examines the boundaries between humankind and technology, and how our innovations define us as much as we define them. She began her explorations with the sketches of physical and virtual intimacy that made up 2012's Movement and broadened her scope on 2014's Platform, where her self-surveillance of her everyday online interactions ranged from mundane to unsettling. On 2019's PROTO, she takes another significant step forward. A collaboration with Spawn, an AI that Herndon created with her partner Mat Dryhurst and programmer Jules LaPlace, her third album reflects her own evolution as an artist and thinker as it documents the project's development. As its name suggests, Herndon's neural network was in its infancy when she made PROTO. To train this cutting-edge technology, she connected it with the oldest roots of her music, and music in general: the human voice. Herndon spent her youth singing in church and secular choirs, and a major part of Spawn's education was learning how to interpret soloists and vocal groups. On choral pieces such as "Evening Shades (Live Training)," PROTO offers glimpses into these lessons that reflect not only Herndon's skills as an arranger, but the project's guiding philosophy that human and synthetic voices are more powerful together than on their own. Likewise, the album presents Spawn's growth as a creative consciousness at different stages. On "Birth," a choir surrounds her as her stuttering voice gradually assembles itself; on "Godmother," she creates fascinating, uncanny vocalizations based on song stems from Herndon and footwork producer Jlin. Meanwhile, the way "Crawler" morphs from an electronic-based duet between Herndon and Spawn to an a cappella piece feels as exploratory as creation itself. Since one of the project's primary goals was introducing Spawn to the humanity of music, it's fitting that PROTO is more melodic and spontaneous than Herndon's previous albums. "Alienation" is a strange but stately blend of choral tradition and electronic pop; along with "Eternal," it evokes Björk and Purity Ring while pushing creative technology's boundaries. One of the main reasons the album is so vital-sounding is the interplay between Herndon, Spawn, and their collaborators, a theme that PROTO explores to its fullest. Herndon expresses the theory behind it beautifully on "Extreme Love," a daringly maternal manifesto that suggests our relationship with microbes as a natural precedent for the type of connected intelligence that could occur between people and AI. On "SWIM," she puts this theory into practice, uniting a choir of human and synthetic voices in gorgeous harmony. Elsewhere, Herndon hints that living side by side with AI won't always be simple, whether on the plaintive, heavily processed "Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt" or "Last Gasp," which enmeshes a delicate vocal in grinding electronics. While PROTO could be impressive for its groundbreaking nature alone, Herndon's meditations on the relationship between humans and increasingly sentient technology are moving and filled with a sense of wonder that makes a rewarding coexistence with AI seem more than possible.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares