Lenka Rayn H.
Nov. 3, 2015 5:58 p.m. ET
‘Howl” (Erased Tapes), the latest album by Rival Consoles, the working name of Ryan Lee West, reveals his continuing development as a composer of electronica that exists well outside the confines of EDM and yet is more accessible than experimental synthesized music. To call “Howl’ delightful is to misrepresent it as slight or eager to please and, though Mr. West’s songs are complex and highly organized, the textured music often surprises and just as often satisfies.
More than on any of his previous two albums and several EPs, the 29-year-old Mr. West relies on traditional song structure as a foundation for his music and integrates organic instruments into his mix. “Low” opens with the ting-ting of a drumstick on a cymbal by Fabian Prynn that grows into a free-jazz pattern on the full kit. Cellist Peter Gregson contributes bellowing tones to “Walls,” which unfolds as bold, stalking electronica and also includes drums—in the form of skins, cymbals and sticks—this time played by Mr. West. During a phone conversation last week from his London flat, Mr. West said he wanted the sonic depth and feel of improvisation that can’t be found in synthesized percussion.
“You’ll never capture that energy with drum samples,” he said, adding, “I hate neat electronic music, which is arguably far too refined.”
Mr. West said he was raised on the sophisticated pop of the Beatles, Radiohead and others. He studied guitar beginning at age 12, played in rock bands and was capable of holding his own on piano. But what he found most intriguing was how rock and pop compositions were put together. Playing thousands of songs, he said, helped him understand structure not in theoretical, but in practical, terms. The spry yet challenging 1999 track “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin introduced him to the possibilities of electronic music, as did the 2006 album, “Body Riddle,” by Clark, who is a clear influence on Mr. West and “Howl.”
Putting rock aside, Mr. West launched his career as Rival Consoles with music that married, on some tracks, glitchy electronica with acoustic piano and synthetic strings. For his first two full-length albums, “IO” and “Kid Velo,” released in 2009 and ’11, respectively, he toyed with funk and popcorn synths, veering dangerously close to EDM. Yet the albums demonstrate his taste for polyrhythms and the occasional grand pronouncement.
Mr. West said he became increasingly interested in trying to find a balance between the essence of electronica and what he called “thoughtful music” by exploring harmony and structure, even with sounds that were all but tropes of EDM. He allowed new influences to shape his thinking: the hypnotic songs of the Velvet Underground, which he failed to appreciate when he was younger; and how saxophonist Colin Stetson produces walls of sounds.
Thus, the through line of Mr. West’s latter compositions became nonconformity in the context of a familiar form. On his Rival Consoles EPs, “Odyssey” (2013) and “Sonne” (2014), his melodic music is logical yet unexpected: In “Haunt” from “Sonne” the intimate sound of Mr. West’s fingers moving along the strings of an acoustic guitar are in the mix.
On “Howl,” out now, Mr. West continues his structured explorations. Pedals customarily used to morph sounds from the guitar are used with a variety of synthesizers. Tones from an upright piano are altered electronically. “Morning Vox” is built on a repetitive pulse that is nudged to the background by jabbing chords on keyboards; as the song threatens to become static, Mr. West adds an interlude on acoustic guitar that changes the environment. He creates the bleak, atmospheric “3 Laments” by manipulating notes he sang. On “Ghosting” and “Looming,” chord patterns are as recognizable as they are in rock and pop songs.
His meticulous application of sounds created from organic and synthesized sources puts the listener in contact with Mr. West, who is a greater presence than the machines he uses to communicate. On “Howl,” his music emerges as poignant, warm and inviting as he takes the familiar and uses it to create something that is his own.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.
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