Life must be pretty sweet for Erased Tapes about now. Not only have they recently put the final cherry on the top of the tenth anniversary celebrations (read about that here), they have also followed up a very strong 2017 by welcoming an excellent new Nils Frahm album and introducing Hatis Nolt to a wider audience. Now, here comes the new Rival Consoles album. It’s like the moment when Barcelona decided that having both Lionel Messi and Neymar up front wasn’t quite enough and bought Luis Suarez to the squad. Fortunately – and to the best of my knowledge – Ryan Lee West (for he is Rival Consoles) hasn’t had to wait an extra four months until the album’s release on account of biting someone.
What West has done is produce what is arguably the strongest album of his career thus far. It stems from an unlikely inspiration – a single scene from the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona. Now this film as a whole, and that sequence in particular, has influenced many directors from Robert Altman and Woody Allen to Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher but to the best of my knowledge, Rival Consoles are the first to claim it as musical inspiration. As this is purely instrumental music, the concept behind the work isn’t that obvious or indeed necessary to the listener – which is not to demean the power of the moving image behind Persona’s opening which is intense and the very definition of art-house cinema concentrated into five minutes.
However, it wouldn’t matter if Persona was inspired by the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child or a particularly moldy cheese sandwich unaccountably left behind a stack of recording equipment if the music wasn’t any good. Fortunately, it is; a hour of inventive compositions that combine pretty melodies with gripping intensity (on some tracks) and thoughtful ambience (on others). The opening “Unfolding” sets the stage well, with a busy brushed-snare pattern under-pinning a delicate refrain which gives way to a thunderous bassy drone and a brief shimmering melody. It’s really invigorating; it would probably fit in more closely to a Bourne movie than something by Ingmar Bergman but you can’t fault West for starting strong.
In fact, the shuffling drums and bold drones recur elsewhere on Persona, which at least ties the album into a coherent feel, rather than scattering all over the place; indeed, these elements have cropped up on previous Rival Consoles releases as well. There is a clear sense of progression on this album though; as Night Melody stripped away some of the clutter from Howl, so does Persona refine the sound of Night Melody further – West is getting gradually away from the club and closer to label mates Kiasmos (which seems fitting as they shared a split release nearly 10 years ago).
Indeed, such is the shift in approach that it’s a gentler Rival Consoles altogether on the second half of the album, a sequence of tracks which lifts Persona above nearly every other electronic album released this year. The plucked string that opens “Dreamer’s Wake” preludes the slowing of the overall tempo, the embrace of sparser arrangements and softening of the music’s feel. “Untravel”, interestingly, bubbles along in a way that suggest there was a pounding beat and bassline until shortly before the mix was completed: it sounds gorgeous, luxuriating in the space afforded by the arrangement. It’s unexpectedly bettered by “Hidden” which brings back a pulsing beat and an almost ravey plucked string to carry the tune; it lifts the album to (nearly) the close with a euphoric vibe. So much, that we’re smiling almost as much as the guys at Erased Tapes who should see another of their artists make a deserved move closer to the mainstream. (Jeremy Bye)