Ryan Lee West has called his music “inward-looking” and said he likes to find “something about the self within music”. That was especially true of his landmark 2018 album, Persona, a dreamy, minimal, shoegaze-tinged LP that felt handmade for late-night introspection. On his newest album under the Rival Consoles moniker, Overflow, West’s music sounds decidedly outward-looking. It is louder, more expansive, and more concerned with societal themes than personal ones. The album was composed for a dance production of the same name created by choreographer Alexander Whitley. Which isn’t hard to see—Overflow is more theatrical than anything West has made.
The LP opens with one of the longest and most ambitious tracks in the Rival Consoles’ discography, the fittingly-titled 10-minute “Monster”. West gets into drone territory here, hitting us with sharp, stentorian snare drums and an ominous one-note bassline. The percussion is sparse but fierce, making everything sound expansive and spaced-apart like it’s being made in a cathedral. Organ pipes enter at around the eight-minute mark, adding a hellish, medieval flair to an otherwise modern track. Everything about this song is huge and abrasive.
The rest of the album follows in a similarly expansive vein, with tracks like “Hands” and “Tension in the Cloud” delving further into drone territory. “Noise Call and Response” is slow and heavy, led by a groove that sounds submerged in molasses, like a slice of warehouse techno played at the slowest possible BPM. “Noise Call and Response II” is much faster. The whole track crescendos into a rush of kick drums and washy keyboards before taking a turn for the ambient, leaving us bathed in an ocean of modulated violins.
But Overflow isn’t just outward-looking in its music; it’s also outward-looking in its themes. If albums like Persona and Articulation explored the self, Overflow seems to explore the dehumanization and breakdown of the self. Take “I Like”, where a voice repeatedly stutters “I like”, “it’s like”, and “they will like” throughout the entire song. The vocal sample is chopped up so that it stutters over itself and echoes in a million different directions at once. In the social-media age, where everyone is obsessed with likes, likes, and more likes, the song is a fitting metaphor for our life and times. It feels distracted and fragmented, just like us.
Sometimes, however, the album’s technological themes feel a little cliched or overdone. “The Cloud Oracle” is three-and-a-half minutes of vocal clips from Google leaders, networking gurus, and other digital entrepreneurs. West has always had a knack for communicating themes in his music implicitly, but here, he seems to tell rather than show. The “Cloud Oracle” is unusually heavy-handed for a Rival Consoles’ song. It goes on too long and overexplains the themes that are already self-evident in the music.
The album is a bit front-loaded, too, as the back-half lacks the explosiveness of the first. The 12-minute “Flow State” feels somewhat directionless compared to the LP’s other behemoth, “Monster”. “Touches Everything” seems to end prematurely, the skittering drums and whirring synths dying down just as the whole song seems like it’s about to climax.
All in all, it’s fair to say that Overflow is Rival Consoles’ most ambitious album, even if it isn’t the most consistent. It aims huge and comes up huge on occasion. Even if the result is a mixed bag, it’s rewarding to hear West expand his range and infuse his unique brand of techno with more droning and expansive qualities.