Holly Herndon


Manchester International Festival returns with one of its most eclectic and strongest bills since inception in 2007. The last event 2015 passed with barely a whimper but a new creative director has breathed much needed life into one of Manchester’s greatest cultural happenings.

The esoteric Dark Matter series curated by Mary Anne Hobbs is central to this. Experimental electronic musician Holly Herndon is just one of many that the BBC Radio 6Music DJ has brought to MIF to “destroy your boundaries”.

It’s always great to see the Pavilion Theatre outside Albert Square buzzing despite the grey skies above and the ever-present threat of Manchester rain.

As I arrive at Gorilla, Hobbs is on the decks and serving up some fine drubbing techno. The contrast from Pavilion into Dark Matter is instant, moving from daylight into dank dungeon. The light rig creates an intense atmosphere, disorienting flickering spotlights and throbbing bass make it feel like a trailer for a horror film. As show time approaches, things get more familiar; a nod to New Order’s MIF residency via Blue Monday provokes tapping feet if not full on dance moves.

Herndon comes onstage as discreetly as someone dressed in orange can, with vocalist Colin Self and visual artist Mat Dryhurst, to debut new material, her first since 2015’s critically acclaimed album Platform.

Amid the hectic swirl of helicopters and signal interference we’re welcomed into a digital diorama, Herndon herself amongst the figurines being manipulated in a code-written world.

The variety of venues is one of the things I love so much about Manchester and Gorilla is perfect for tonight. The tight, square enclosure feels inescapable and the perfect backdrop for self-induced paranoia.

Since electronic pioneers like Silver Apples and Kraftwerk, machine music has predominantly focused on the future. Herndon however presents a dystopian present. Visually weaving in and out of a computer desk, pop culture references are placed side-by-side with cigarettes and an ever-changing landscape of food, the claustrophobic clanking soundtrack a thinly-veiled critique on modern consumerism. More overt messages follow: “Facebook ruins everything” is as explicit as they come and it is little surprise Herndon is keen to pay tribute to Chelsea Manning.

As if there were any doubt of the device-driven nature of the artist, communication comes via big screen, and despite the ominous red font, the tone of any message is very human, even if the method isn’t. Her words are kind and gracious and this positive connection via screen that Herndon creates is representative of so many modern human connections.

Inescapably, this is concept music. Drawing inspiration from the view that the laptop is not only a valid instrument (Mojo, Q, et al, please take note) but actually the most intimate one there is; your entire life is contained within and it can reveal secrets you may not wish to admit. Using this to layer music like a littered homepage, Herndon creates some of the most real music you will ever hear. It’s an anxiety provoking soundscape in an increasingly uncomfortable reality. The digital revolution has been personified; if that isn’t Dark Matter, then I don’t know what is.

Holly Herndon: Official | Facebook | Twitter

Joseph Curran

Features Editor and gig reviewer