The first sound you hear on Holly Herndon’s Movement is a blurt of white noise, like a heavy garbage bag dragged across the floor. Then, slowly, it separates itself into component parts in front of your ears; now, it sounds like a million pebbles hitting a puddle. Then it glues itself back together, resembling the flicker of a dying television. It is 90 seconds before you hear another sound, so you only have this to focus on. Does this sound like fun? No? Because in a nice pair of headphones, it feels like Herndon is firing up a sound installation inside your brain.
It’s an appropriate entry into Movement, a fascinating and at times deeply disturbing album in which Herndon pulls apart sounds on a cellular level, taking forensic delight in how they can inflict acute discomfort. Her musical path began in Berlin clubs and ended with a composition degree, and Movement braids these two twisting paths into an unprizable knot of conflicting impulses. Her music is a mesmerizing negotiation between propulsion and stasis. Half the time, it’s tugging coyly at your body; the other half, it’s cruelly teasing your mind. Often, it’s doing both.
The closest thing to a dance number is “Fade,” in which Herndon’s disembodied pleas (“Take my hand”) diffuse and spread like dry ice around the song’s thumping beat. The song’s pulse complicates itself endlessly, with rewound vocals, dropped beats, and small burbling little syncopations, but never takes its finger off of its own pulse. “Breathe,” meanwhile, is the opposite extreme, a six-minute work made of nothing but Herndon’s own ragged, gasping breaths, shredded into wisps and swirled together into something resembling rhythm and melody. Music made of human breath is usually a comforting, holistic notion, but Herndon’s feels more like a Cubist take on a visceral anti-smoking PSA; I found myself squirming with a constricted chest while it played. But once you’ve heard it, it is impossible to shake or forget. Movement is rigged with little explosive devices like this one throughout its relatively brief length. It is not an album for the faint-hearted; at places, it is forbiddingly severe. But it will linger in your mind long after its echoes have died.