Holly Herndon brought the critically-acclaimed and visionary PROTO to the Barbican last Wednesday for a sublimely unique audiovisual experience.
At its core, Holly Herndon’s live show is built on the collaboration of six flawless voices. That’s it. Add in thundering electronics and a gripping narrative, and rarely has a performer created so much from such simplicity, resulting in a breathtaking spectacle that’s both daring and joyful.
Aya’s intimate supporting slot proves the perfect accompaniment. Essential releases on Tri Angle Records, Wisdom Teeth and a consistently mind-bending NTS residency meant that expectations were high, particularly after hearing such promising reports from her Unsound set the week before. Like in Krakow, we’re treated to the pounding VIP of ‘That Hyde Trakk’, plus a Pulp Fiction “deconstructed club” mash-up, glimpses of a forthcoming album and a fractured rework of Charli XCX’s ‘Femmebot’, a highlight from Aya’s ell oh tea too oh won ate released earlier this year. Among the melted visuals and the hilariously deadpan delivery from Aya, we’re left reeling by a powerful statement of intent from a hugely exciting artist.
After a brief interval, Holly, the five-strong chorus and Mat Dryhurst take to the stage and a sense of unease sets in immediately. Grainy visuals reveal we’re being hunted, the enemy unclear and the tension only punctured by soaring vocals and throbbing rumbles of bass, notably on an explosive rendition of ‘Eternal’.
There’s a loose choreography to proceedings, as the chorus assemble in various positions across the stage and members of London Sacred Harp choir spring up during ‘Frontier’ to offer surprise backing vocals. It feels polished, sure, but never rigid, with Holly and Mat beaming throughout and regular breaks for the ensemble to embrace and applaud each other.
Perhaps we were expecting a seventh voice to join the party, specifically Holly and Mat’s AI baby, but Spawn is absent, left at home due to “stage shyness.” We do, however, get a unique opportunity to record a call and response that will contribute to Spawn’s learning and help her find her voice.
Despite Herndon manipulating her own vocals with an array of effects, much of the set bears a closer resemblance to the church choirs she grew up with and, fittingly, it’s difficult to describe the show as anything but transcendent.
By unstoppable closer ‘Fade’, the crowd are on their feet and the mood is utterly jubilant. For music that’s so indebted to technology and the detached whirring of machinery, the warmth that exudes from the stage is staggeringly infectious.
Photo credit: Boris Camaca