Music

Rival Consoles: Howl

Photo: Maik Timm

Rival Consoles humanizes electronic music with his scintillating third LP.


Rival Consoles

Howl

Label: Erased Tapes
US Release Date: 2015-10-16
UK Release Date: 2015-10-16
Amazon
iTunes

It's all well and good trying to 'humanize' electronic music and endow it with an organic sound, as Ryan Lee West has aimed to do on his third album as Rival Consoles, but what sets him apart from every other nature-mimicking producer who tries to pass the musical equivalent of the Turing test is that he also endows it with an organic structure. His Howl LP is teeming with artificial life, but it's not so much the artificial life that comes simply from running his instrumentation through guitar pedals and writing his material first on the piano, as the artificial life that inhabits songs with a sense of teleology and purpose. Its nine exploratory and evocative tracks evolve fluidly, or 'organically' if you will, as if adapting its goals and the pursuit of its goals to changes in its external and internal environment, and as a result, it exhibits an intelligence and a personality that would put large swathes of non-electronic music to shame.

Perhaps this is the ultimate end-point of Howl: to make music that's more human than human. If so, you wouldn't glean much of this objective from the initial stirrings of the title track, which shuffles and groans its way through a round of bassy pulsings, clicked beats and evanescent waves of digitized feedback. Yet after this faintly ominous yet largely unassuming introduction, the song's central phrase jumps out of the primordial soup, chiming and ringing a syncopated melody which, seeing as how West is a guitarist by training, could have been played on six strings and then wrung through a laptop. It gains mass and impetus as it unfolds, and even though it and its atmospheric accompaniments undoubtedly possess a satisfying grainy, fibrous texture that could pass them for the biological, it's their development and progressions that foster the impression they're as sentient as anything that lives and breathes.

Even though West does chop and change his palette across Howl's nine forays into artificial life, it's this evolutionary approach that supplies the record with its essential — and highly effective — framework. Tracks like the convulsive "Ghosting" and the phasing "Afterglow" envelop the listener with their resonant warmth and multi-layered materiality, and then take him or her on a journey as they career through various peaks, troughs and detours. Whereas the earliest purveyors of electronica wrote music that bluntly underlined how technology was or could be used to make people less spontaneous, creative, adventurous and free (e.g. Kraftwerk released LPs with names like The Man-Machine and Computer World), West exploits the dynamism, flexibility and richness of these songs to underline how, far from restricting us, technology may in fact help us to release our 'true' potential.

Admittedly, other electronic-oriented artists like Ben Frost, Apparat and Tim Hecker have made similar strides in the direction of organic-inorganic marriage with their own recent work, but what lends Howl its particular distinction is not only its purposefulness, but also a greater sensitivity to emotions that are less abstract and more recognizably human. The hulking "Walls" ripples in its latter half with an expectantly flickering riff and an awe-inspiring undercarriage that bounds from one intimidating note to the next, while the serenely monumental "Morning Vox" engenders a mood of hope and tranquility as it graduates from strobe keys to a rise of imperturbable synths. In both cases, what West delivers is the heartening conviction that technology can be molded to fit and complement our better natures, and that by extension it might make us better people.

This seems to be the wish contained within the excellent "Looming", a closer which flexes itself across a series of incipient lulls and emergent flourishes. It begins with characteristically innocuous humming and percussion, only to turn prophetic and swell into a volley of croaking tremors, computerized streaks that convey an intense longing for something they spend the rest of the cut wending towards. Yet their wistful tinge perhaps implies the unattainability of their object, the impossibility of transforming the human race into the realization of their idealized movements and sentiments, and so, in the end, they refute their own claim to naturalness or humanity by lacking the very defects, errors and imperfections that make nature and the human what they are. And even if such an absence ensures that Howl is a captivating listen, it also means that the album won't be passing any musical Turing tests any time soon.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Television

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.

Music

Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.

Music

Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.

Television

Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman
Music

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.

Music

Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Music

The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.

Music

Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.

Books

The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.