Rival Consoles: Howl

Photo: Maik Timm

Rival Consoles humanizes electronic music with his scintillating third LP.

Rival Consoles


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

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.






Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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