Dan Friel was a big part of the now defunct Parts & Labor, one of the great unsung rock bands of the last 10 years. In that band, Friel and his fellow players managed to combine industrial electronic sounds with rock heft without rendering their songs cold or bloodless. That band was truly innovative, crafting its own unique sound and honing it to perfection over time without ever stagnating.
Friel’s latest solo album, Total Folklore, continues that propulsion of ideas. If you’ve heard his work, alone or with Parts & Labor, you’re not likely to mistake these synth-y layers for anyone else. And yet this feels fresh, like a new collection pushing his sounds in new territories. He claims this set is inspired by commutes and walking, and though this seems like a simple space of origin, it does inform these tracks. When they’re not interrupted by interstitial experiments and found sound, these instrumental tracks march with a quotidian repetition, but also twist the mundane into something more.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the epic opener and album’s best song, “Ulysses”. The song stomps with a heavy beat, filled up with skronky riffs and a cascading synth line rising and falling over it. The song runs for 12 minutes, never changing so much as twisting into new variations on the same theme. It slowly, subtly grows in size and swells with bright, gauzy layers. It’s the next logical move for Friel’s usually condensed sonic weight, an expansion into larger, more wide-open spaces. It’s a song that follows its path but makes that path seem limitless, an amazing map of sound from start to finish.
It’s the biggest moment and a bold start for an album that, after that, slips back into pop concision. It’s by no means predictable, and vacillates between unpredictable noise experiments and fully fleshed-out tunes. There’s the noodly tension of “Windmill” up against the electro-punk, catchy fury of “Valedictorian”, or the found sound of traffic under isolated synth notes on “Intermission #2” leading into the skittering white-noise hooks of “Thumper”. The album sways wildly back and forth between these two spaces, and manages to hit both well. “Thumper”, in particular, is a strong entry, showing all Friel’s pop sensibility cloaked in his equally impressive ear for finding alien textures within familiar sounds.
The album never misses and feels energetic and exciting all the way through. It’s another solid chapter in Friel’s musical story. In spite of that, it’s also an album that sometimes feels like its missing a layer or two. Standouts like “Ulysses” and “Thumper” mesh the hazy sounds of synthesizers with pounding beats that give the songs a bit of gravitas. In other spaces, the songs are solid – see “Landslide” or closer “Badlands” – but they also feel like they are treading the same ground without stomping hard enough to make new cracks. Some moments here have a truly punk fury, something as brash and quick as it is muscled. Other moments, like the low but somehow airy hooks of “Velocipede”, feel sped up without sounding thick with rock power. Songs like late-album treat “Swarm” get back to the beautiful space and rumble of “Ulysses”. The albums has a hard time getting out of that song’s long shadow, though, mostly because sometimes, though it’s willing to make the same kind of racket, it doesn’t always shake the walls with the same authority.