Listening to Howl, the third album by Rival Consoles, I have to wonder if Ryan West shares my affections. The London musician got his start making symphonic breakcore and chiptune in 2007, which has over time matured into a more serious, analog-based sound. Recent records like Odyssey and Sonne posed West as a crossover electronic artist in the vein of Clark and Jon Hopkins (indeed, they've taken notice of his work). Howl is the first full-length in that style, offering nine lovingly crafted and expressive compositions that cherish mood as much as bespoke timbres. So the album's only major issue stems from the overall feeling that you've heard its music before.
Or at least something very close to it. In one song you might hear a synth that's tweaked like one in Clark's "Herzog," or one that flutters and pulses as if an echo of the bassline in Hopkins' "Open Eye Signal." Probably the closest resemblance is "Low." The Howl centerpiece unfurls moody jazz drums and muted synth beds that evoke Body Riddle closer "The Autumnal Crush," albeit with less gusto and conviction. Which winds up being another of Howl's downfalls: for all its well-crafted sounds and depth of emotion, the album rarely goes anywhere unexpected, bold or even all that exciting. In fact, West holds back at the worst possible times—songs like "Ghosting" and "Pre" swell to a near climax before inexplicably receding from the precipice. Restraint can certainly be a sign of maturity, but like any tool, you have to know when and how best to use it.
Despite its shortcomings, Howl is a fine album for those interested in analog electronics and curious what can be done with them outside of a club environment. West has a strong command of his machines and how to arrange them; his biggest strength is making fully fleshed-out productions from only a handful of sounds. (The way "Morning Vox" naturally gathers together a simple beat, one jumpy synth loop and a few starry pads—and briefly sneaks a guitar in—is especially nice.) But now that Howl has made it clear West has no trouble building vibrant electronic music from scratch, it should be interesting to see if he can use those skills to uncover something wholly his own.