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Review: Dan Friel Unlocks the Secrets of ‘Life’ at His Knob-Twiddling Fingertips

Dan Friel
Dan Friel
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Label: Thrill Jockey

Parts & Labor were quietly one of New York’s most original post-hardcore acts during the 2000s, a not-labored-at-all fusion of parts that made for a grand, jagged sum: explosive drumming fit for a Melt-Banana split, squealing electronics that fit quixotically onto a melodic grid, and dryly distant singing from two guys. They occasionally harmonized; somehow the friendlier their melodies got, the weirder the synthesis was. Who else sounded like this?

Hanging it up for good in 2012 after ten years, Dan Friel split with his P&L songwriting partner B.J. Warshaw to develop his homemade electronic side uninhibited from the strictures of verse-chorus-verse, which was casually relegated to half a dozen EPs before it became his main musical offering. There was a renewed sense of purpose on 2013’s Total Folklore, announced with a 13-minute all-synth-and-distorted-thunder odyssey entitled “Ulysses,” which sounded live and probably was. As Folklore went on, it unraveled telephone-code melodies more suited to the album title on tracks like “Thumper” and “Landslide,” which flirted with a one-dimensional cutesiness we associate with Matt & Kim. And this was a noise guy.

His astounding new Life is even more songful, all the more impressive considering his claustrophobic medium that he gleans so many colorful variations from, à la Fetty Wap. After an intro of what sounds like a theremin wavering through “Silent Night,” out charges a simultaneously more minimal and yet full-bodied Dan Deacon album than has ever actually existed. Early standout “Lungs” crunches like a hip-hop beat performed on factory pistons, while Friel’s snaking sawtooth lines flit legibly between major key figures and minor key turnarounds. As it progresses, it devolves into swampier, more leaden booms and thwips until it stops being able to move altogether, like it was moving through wet concrete. Similarly, “Bender” swerves like a frantic insect beneath its own drums trying to crush it to death.

The aptly named “Sleep Deprivation” is the most disruptive thing here, a two-minute demolition derby of feedback and teakettles vying with drowning Optigans and unspooling reel-to-reels. It’s like a fireplace with lots of dying electronic instruments thrown in, but still left switched on to groan themselves to death, before the title tune serves as both centerpiece (in the form of the albums best track) and a more anxious variation to close.

“Life Pt. 1” piles up electronic harmonies on its Möbius strip melody line above marching industrial percussion and laser blips below, as the octaves heat up higher and denser. It’s a career highlight for Friel, as lyrical and catchy as any tune from Parts & Labor’s minor volcano Mapmaker — without a sung word in earshot. He follows it with an all-MIDI cover of Joanna Gruesome‘s excellent 2015 “Jamie (Luvver),” miraculously without dropping a note of its twee clarity in translation. The fact that an electronic musician who speaks exclusively with his knobs and dials at this juncture can reproduce one of the year’s best punk songwriting factions says great things about the future of “singing.” Friel produces so much joy with his hands in a noise-tune continuum that it takes a moment to realize how rare it is for a solo instrumental project to eclipse a progressive former band. That’s how Life works, and sometimes life too.