Day Forty-Nine – Needle-Scratch: Dan Friel – Total Folkore

Thrill Jockey Records ■ THRILL 324

Released February 19, 2013
Recorded by Dan Friel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Ulysses
  2. Windmills
  3. Valedictorian
  4. Intermission #1
  5. Velocipede
  1. Scavengers
  2. Intermission #2
  3. Thumper
  4. Landslide
  5. Intermission #3
  6. Swarm
  7. Badlands

My last blog was actually named for a song by the band Parts & Labor, about whom I eventually wrote there,  and this was partly in the interest of a title that implied the aim I had, and partly as a result of my overriding love of the band, particularly the album Mapmaker. After they released the follow-up to that one, though (Receivers) I actually caught them live with my friend (and former manager) Gerald who had introduced me to them with that lasting and evocative phrase, “Music to melt your brain”. At that show, I expanded my awareness of their work by picking up BJ Warshaw’s Shooting Spires album (by his side/solo project, Shooting Spires, of course) as well as Dan Friel’s then-exclusive release (barring an extremely limited EP I am FAR too late for), Sunburn. Sunburn was a quick little release, 7 tracks and less than 20 minutes, and released on what could’ve been a 3″ CD but was instead a neat little partially clear one. It was the noisiest, strangest, most experimental side of Parts & Labor distilled, devoid of vocals, yet still imbued with hooks.

I intended to pick up the followup, Ghost Town, but things got a little maddening around that time, and it slipped by me. I did actually pick it up eventually, and it continued the aesthetic of Sunburn pretty openly, but with the increased fidelity that had begun to show up on Parts & Labor records around the same time. The tones and sounds Friel chose were indicative of the kind he was working into those records, though the solo nature of the project lends a different fele to them.

The magic of social media was the method by which I was informed that more solo material was forthcoming–a 12″ here (“Valedictorian/Exoskeleton”), a digital single there (“Thumper”)–and so when the record itself was announced, I was finally pushed over the edge by the fact that I’d started this blog, and it would mean an opportunity to talk about Friel’s solo work here. Perhaps that’s an odd reason–something like the reverse of a label sending me a promotional copy, but it was the final reason (coloured vinyl was icing on the cake, of course). I actually ordered it directly from Thrill Jockey, who were kind enough to notify me before shipping it that they were now bundling the LP with his previous 12″ (the “Valedictorian/Exoskeleton” one), and, since I had ordered both already at the same time, I was going to be getting the bundle price. I don’t know if a bunch of people did this, if it was a systematic decision, or if some kind soul just saw what I’d ordered and decided to cut me a break. Kudos to the label in any case, and you can grab the same bundle from the same link above (which I’ll go ahead and admit I recommend now).

I’ve had the record for about a week, and have been resisting listening to it because I do write here, and it seems like I shouldn’t break things in before their time here. However, I’m currently backlogged by two days in my normally more alphabetical progression, and was already planning on multiple entries for my day off anyway, so after waking up this morning, I decided I’d just go all-in with the idea, break the pattern and do so for the fact that I, for once, have a new release in advance (I’m still waiting on my copies of Eels’ Wonderful, Glorious and the deluxe vinyl for Coheed and Cambria‘s The Afterman, as well as a stack of stuff from Bill Baird, including his new album). I haven’t got much reach, but a “zero day” review for an artist I appreciate seems like the right thing to do–so I’m doing it. I’ll return to our regularly scheduled alphabet following this–hence the sub-title “needle-scratch”: this is an abrupt and sudden inclusion, and one that may mark a new, intermittent trend.

When you begin Total Folkore, “Ulysses” may throw you off a bit, depending on what you are expecting. A tone that grates in the sense that alarms do drops and holds for a moment, before a murky, distorted electronic beat begins at a very deliberate pace. Friel largely works in analogue sound manipulation, usually a keyboard with a stack of pedals all over it to modify the sounds being produced (live, at least–but I can’t imagine the studio is hugely different). This rumbling stomp is enhanced by revving squeals that all come together into one higher pitch, which gives way to the melody of the song, a catchy and appealing one that obscures the impression of purely abrasive atonal noise that the unfamiliar might be left with at first glance. It doesn’t speed the tempo of the song up much, though it is a bit faster than the underlying beat. It periodically frays into that same, unified note of noise that introduced it in the first place. Even in the space of a song almost thirteen minutes long (to call this a record for his solo work is an understatement: he hit half of that on a single song, and even that one was a good minute longer than the next longest) it’s hard to describe the feeling of Dan’s style. The melody does mutate and change over the course of the track, finding points of increased atonality and other moments of sweeter clarity. About a third of the way through, the melody circles upward like it was shot there, and some atonal pitches give way to a sort of pause: the beat dissolves into a series of foot-step like stomps, accented by fanning buzzes that rise up and disappear, shift in pitch and length. A pillar of sound that seems to shoot off distortion and pitches like crackling bolts and the seemingly acoustic rhythm of metal on glass appear and manage to return the song to its origins, enhanced by the “soloing” of that central tone’s modulations, throwing off sparks and flames as it runs forward, even doing so without the beat for a moment. It’s reminiscent of the layering of digital electronic music, strains added and removed as the song progressed, but with all the messy semi-unpredictable elements that come with analogue equipment.

“Windmills” sounds like a crowded, urban environment played at about ten times its regular speed, overlaid with the crinkled, limited bloomp of 8-bit-esque drum machine kicks and a skittering curl of melodious repetition, though the “environment” sound somehow fuses into a single buzz that permeates all of it. It’s like a broken dance track, almost, the beat still strong but the melody’s downward stroke giving it a sudden halt at each repetition.

Being the track “truly” released as a single, “Valedictorian” has all the hallmarks of latter-era Parts & Labor Friel sounds: the rhythm is built on a noise that more resembles a guitar, chugging along on a single chord for eight rapid beats at a time, though a drum-style beat is added later to fill the bottom end. The melody is the scratchy distortion of a rounded kazoo sound, though it first appears in swirling, ethereal form, undistorted, at the very opening of the song, and continues to hide in the background. The focus is pretty clearly on the “kazoo” form, though, as the “rhythm guitar” and the shortly appearing drums work at a regular pace to draw the lines underneath it. It’s interesting the way Friel uses them: they’re like a combination of lead guitar and vocal lines in the way that the song is built around them, as they seem to both draw out the melody of the song and “sing” out a rhythm that is codified to the beat established by the song. It’s worthy of its single release, being one of the less abrasive and catchiest of the songs on the album, the melody a great hook in spite of its strange manifestation. Keep an ear out for the introduction of a sort of piano-esque layer to the “rhythm guitar”.

There are three “Intermission” tracks on the album, and the first sounds largely like tuning rapidly through radio stations to create a rhythm, though it crackles just a bit too much to actually be such a thing.

A big soft-bottomed synth-style sound controls the beat of “Velocipede”, which ends up weaving something more like a set of varying melodies into its whole sound than a melody and a rhythm. A falling melody that harmonizes into a slowly rising one is around the same place in the mix as the pitched-beat synth, and has hiding in it (if one listens carefully) the viola of Karen Waltuch, which adds little bits of connective tissue to that central sound. The song seems to expand as it goes, ending in the two primary parts alternating in isolation from each other.

The introduction to “Scavengers” implies a scattered and expansive kind of track, but as all the sound collapse into each other and then out of existence, the determined poundings of sixteenth (at least) notes in rubbery bass-style keys begin to nimbly dance away in the background, as the sweeping squeal of electronic noise that is the signature of careful turning of knobs to modulate sound wails over top, the brilliant introduction of a drum machine beat gives the song serious legs–about eight of them, even if it’s only adding five beats (1,2,3,4&). It’s like a melding of pretty noises and the harder end of acid house–something to that effect. An absolute standout on the album, for its sheer energy.

The second “Intermission” sounds like a busy street corner or a train station, with the mostly clear, tube-like snakes of noise seeming to echo out alone and unnoticed–I like to think it’s the sound of someone like Friel acting as a strange, electronic busker, the crowds treating this as no different from an acoustic one. Largely that unfortunately means ignoring, but there’s something pleasing to me about the idea that someone is out on a sidewalk or up against a tube station wall playing strange, slightly dissonant (slightly in this case, anyway) electronically blooped melodies and no one is angry or swearing at the “weird noises”, but taking it as just another example of solo musicianship.

“Thumper” was released to music websites as the “single” for the album, and it’s no wonder. While “Valedictorian” made sense as an isolated physical release last year, “Thumper” carries a more distinct distillation of this album’s sound and the variegated sound of Friel as a solo artist. Another rapid beat, this one a mess of fuzz and chattering, though a booming stomp lands at a steady pace with it. The melody is piercing, gaining speed as it develops, hinting an upward turn repeatedly before it turns back down. Then the melody curls back in on itself and a new yammering beat slides in on top of the rest, shifting pitch steadily, and eventually being joined by a rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in the more frenetic works of Squarepusher. Echoing out over nothing but the booming thump (ahem) of the low end of the beat, the melody soars out like a lone and proud beacon, but it’s rejoined by the wild yammer that carries the song off to–a sudden swipe, as if the song were wiped away.

The beat behind “Landslide” calls to mind a marching band, or at least the chest-mounted bass drum style of playing that goes along with one, though with a bit more soul than the most well-established pieces for such groups. A harmonized melody with little swirls of noise alongside it cruises in before holding, a new one developing underneath that seems to move along precociously in its simple changes in pitch. A chugging fills in behind it and fills the gaps that were left, but the piece suddenly drops all but the melody and a harsh buzzing beat in the midrange. The melody seems to almost lose pace briefly, but it’s actually an echo from another sound reproduction that’s just mirroring the melody slightly out of step. The buzzing beat, which is like a charging, riff-based guitar lead, takes over, but it’s chopped and re-arranged electronically, halting and turned up and down, the song becoming increasingly chaotic and tangled, with the melody its only rescue, played in isolation but for its companion swirls and squeals. And so it pounds off into the sunset.

The last “Intermission” has the sound of a train crossing, though interspersed with it are the tweets and bleeps of keys, a gentle and sustained, slow hum of a melody hiding deep in the background as the three beats of a sound I’m convinced is not (but is modeled after) the warnings of an approaching train insistently plays out.

“Swarm” has an introduction composed of the kind of stretched swells of electronic noise to no backing in its introduction that mark some of my favourite Parts & Labor songs, but the rhythms that follow are like an orchestra of power tools and industrial machinery, sampled and clanking to a defined beat. The melody is filled with nervous energy, trying to escape the boundaries set on it by the knobs that control its sound, attempting to work its way past each turn of them Friel gives, and seemingly succeeding partway through, a deep vibrating hum taking control of the song from below and centering its flares and tattered edges. The deep hum takes over like a rhythm guitar asserting its riff as the anchor of the song, but it all disappears in an industrial buzz.

The album closes with “Badlands”, matching a booming kick with snare follow to a melody that at first seems to just buzz and crackle, but soon resolves into a rollercoaster of melodic motion, riding up and down varying crests of electronic “bloops” that don’t seem to repeat themselves with much regularity, or even function as octave-changed repeats. There’s a kind of chorus where it disappears in favour of aggressive buzzing, making the track something like an industrial metal bit, but being betrayed by the appeal of a bright and cheerful melody.

The first thing that struck me about Friel’s solo work came from “Dead Batteries” on Sunburn, which I vaguely suspect is named because it either came from them, or because it does just sound like the limited output of a device’s dying batteries attempting to force regular work through. While the melodic style echoed the sounds he added to Parts & Labor, it was immediately apparent that nothing like the restrictions of vocal pop work were going to be applied to this music.

Total Folkore is not an exception to any of this: it’s abrasive, atonal, dissonant sounds sculpted into pretty, catchy little ditties, in complete defiance of the roars, squeaks, and theoretically grating aural palette they are built from. If you aren’t prepared for this, you might either find yourself plugging your ears too soon, or fainting dead away at the way that these two things are melded, completely without a sense of pretension or contrived experimentation. Like his prior two releases, Friel sounds like he’s making music from noises he appreciates himself, turning it into songs he likes the sound of, unconcerned with being specifically unique, or with being palatable to the point of homogenization or softening. The harsh elements, the aggressive, the speedy, the forceful–none of them really even seem like a direct and active contrast with the melodies or the catchy portions of songs, so much as part of an overall sound that just happens to be built from the two of them.  The new emphasis on rhythm, in contrast with the occasional absence and lighter focus on the last two is welcome and helps to bring a more complete and less skeletal feel to the work as a whole.

This isn’t an album that’s going to be ground-breaking in the sense of the kind you stick on a shelf and proudly look at, knowing you own a piece of history–if it breaks ground, if it holds a place it could easily deserve, it’s going to do so as it plays out of speakers, under needles, streams of binary data, under the light of lasers. It’s not going to be an album that you “have to” listen to, it will be one you want to listen to–maybe you will “have to” as well, but that will be secondary to desire, or will soon give way to it. It’s not the sort of thing you can readily expect if you haven’t heard this kind of music before, at the least in the form of bands that work it in with “normal” instrumentation, but if you keep your ears open and allow for the grating sounds to unexpectedly coalesce and become something enjoyable, you’ll find that’s exactly what they do.