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.