The opening scene to Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, shows a series of unrelated and fragmented images: a running filmstrip, an animation, a close up of the eyes of a dying sheep. To try make sense of the linear narrative of these images in isolation is missing the point; Bergman’s abstract comment on storytelling can only be understood by considering the film as a whole.
Persona, Ryan West’s fourth album as Rival Consoles on Robert Rath’s avant-garde record label Erased Tapes, offers a cracked window, curtains tentatively half pulled, into a dark, brooding and intensely introspective electronic world. West’s sound fluctuates wildly between intensity and reverie, between hypnosis and anxiety, between euphoria and meditation, and invites the listener to get lost in a beautifully unpredictable dream world. Like Bergman’s film it is a conceptual project that can really only be fully appreciated in its entirety.
Its opening track, “Unfolding”, is a slow build, reverb heavy, Jon Hopkins style dance track, full of epic, expansive synth sounds and driven forward by an incessant kick beat. This track masterfully pulls back to create momentary spaces of hanging suspense before pushing forward once more, each time with added energy.
In a similar vein, the album’s title track settles seamlessly into a slow, regular, 7 minute, beat driven floor filler, full of rich analogue synth sounds that seem to grow from the very heartbeat of the tune.
We would be fooled however if we were to become too comfortable moving in this direction. The third track on the album, “Memory Arc”, throws us into a completely unexpected state of reverie. The track is muted as if the listener is suddenly underwater and is left floating without any form of drumbeat.
“Phantom Grip” is an incredibly multivalent fourth track. What seems initially to be a more generic sounding dance track with a softened intensity compared to the album’s opening tracks, becomes infused with a fuzzy and gritty bass line sending shockwaves through the watery atmosphere we had just got comfortable in.
Whilst the opening half of the album is strong, one can’t help but notice the heavy Jon Hopkins influences and, although stunning to listen to, it lacks originality. As if his ears were burning however, Ryan West dives at this mid point in the album into a world of sonic experimentation that is distinctly his own.
“Be Kind” is a seemingly improvised tumble of piano sounds with a soft pattering drone underneath. It is the most free track on the album and creates the sense of listening to a stream of musical consciousness.
This irregular and warped new sonic universe is given a kaleidoscopic sense of colour in “I Think So”. There is something joyous and euphoric about the deep and resonant chords falling in sync with the slow drum pattern and yet an underlying sense of tension, reminiscent of the album’s opening, drives the track forward.
As has seemed inevitable from the start, West’s world begins to threaten to fall into chaos in “Sun’s Abandon”. It becomes increasingly difficult to pin-point a regular beat sequence outside of the recurring theme. The synths modulate unnervingly and a sampled female vocal recurs randomly throughout. And yet the track holds itself together somehow and still manages to highlight moments of considered delicacy.
Perhaps West’s most evocative and sentimental track yet arrives late in the album. “Dreamer’s Awake” is simple, slow and beautifully harmonised and wouldn’t feel out of place on a Jamie xx album. It is testament to West’s confidence in the sound and status of his moniker Rival Consoles that he is so willing to strip back and simplify his sound, moving away from the dense production of his previous IDM releases.
The following two tracks similarly meander through warm soundscapes without even a shadow of the ominousness or sonic tension of before. The significance of the empty space within these tracks can only really be fully appreciated having listened to not only this album from the start, but the rest of West’s previous discography.
“Hidden” is alive with energy. After such a long hiatus of ambience, the listener is electrified by a simple fast driving four-to-the-floor beat. Initially the familiar synths soar above the beat elegantly and beautifully and then they morph into aggressive, wet and warped blips. The bass is warm, heavy and resonant and wraps the listener in sound. It then develops a dubstep style wobble, truly demonstrating the extent of West’s sonic palette. Finally it fades into nothingness and the listener is left utterly satisfied.
The album could quite easily end here, and “Fragment” will likely be mostly overlooked. However, this 90-second epilogue or coda, beautifully delicate and subdued, reminds the listener of the introspective essence of the album as a whole.
Whilst West quite evidently draws heavily from artists such as Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm, Bonobo and Aphex Twin, this album is far more than just pastiche. Persona communicates something far more personal, refined, intimate and conceptual than anything we have heard Rival Consoles do yet.
Persona is out now on Erased Tapes.
Order it here.
Words: Oscar Lister