In an interview in the fall of 2012, electronic musician and composer Dan Friel and I spoke of saxophonist Albert Ayler; specifically, as vanguard as that music is, for the Ayler brothers, there was a strong desire to make “music that people could hum.” Friel, formerly of the highly regarded noise rock ensemble Parts & Labor, is certainly a musician who is beholden to songcraft despite his leanings toward the difficult, weird, or somewhat unhinged. The fact of a gooey pop-nugget forcing its way out of plugged-in shambles is actually something of an inescapable impulse across the 12 tracks of Total Folklore, Friel’s second full-length LP and latest (following the “Valedictorian”/“Exoskeleton” EP) for Thrill Jockey. Friel is something of an economist as well as a profound “entertainer”: rather than sitting behind a table covered with no-input mixing boards and pedals, Friel has his palette placed loosely on a board in his lap, twiddling nobs, flipping things, and tapping his feet all at the same time. Watching Friel work is something of an experience — personal, intimate, and exuberant — and surprisingly, that is something that comes across well on recordings.
Make no mistake: Friel’s music is noisy as hell. It’s completely overdriven and in the red, masses of sound colors spread on thickly and decisively, something like an ultra-sugarcoated Merzbow. The color palette that Friel uses is quite garish and confectionary, as much as it might take the shape of fuzzed-out noise channeled through blown speakers. Sure, it is somewhat headache-inducing, and even with the volume knob at about one-sixth mast, the recording is overpoweringly loud. For this music, that is an entirely welcome proposition. Friel also sounds as though his bevy of electronic instruments is spread out over several musicians; that’s not to say his music is overly busy, but that he’s able to attain a sense of scale that eclipses that of a single musician. Part of that is through some Helmholtzian orchestration — placing small, detailed sounds next to large areas — but it’s likely a more innate feel for “what should go where.” For instance, the clomping rhythms that form the basis of the “Ulysses” suite (which is over a third of this 37-minute LP) are placed against several superimposed high-pitched wails towards an almost battering anthem, which splays into a sparser area with repeating “clinks.” Friel develops the piece along nearly ornate lines, his grungy patchwork evincing a surprising amount of softness and detail, even as the means are decidedly explosive and the shapes somewhat approximate.
“Valedictorian” remains something of a hit here, as it’s one of Total Folklore’s hookiest tunes. I’ve referenced Guided By Voices and their chiming 4-track grandeur before with this piece, and that still holds true in the context of a full-length disc. It’s a beautiful song in addition to being a fist-pumping raver. Here, it’s sandwiched between the obsessive video game squall and imprecise beat of “Windmills” and a short, glitchy “Intermission.” “Velocipede” is the one piece that adds an additional musician in the form of violist Karen Waltuch, though her instrument is only vaguely discernible through Friel’s saccharine power-drill hooks. While Friel’s music might encompass a significant amount, it isn’t exactly “roomy.” “Intermission #2” includes found sounds from passing traffic, voices and wind slightly obscured by a clarion tone; this leads almost immediately into the new wave-y structures that emerge from “Thumper,” which pits a keening lyrical line against itchy, nattering clamor. There are a few pieces that seem to recycle elements or ideas, and those appear to be placed towards the record’s end — some of the floppy beats and rackety singsong in “Landslide” and “Swarm” are almost reappraisal in nature, but contribute handily to the record’s overall feel. That’s not to say they don’t carry some mean hooks with them, however. Indeed, Total Folklore is a captivating release of memorable, “hummable” tunes dressed in the trappings of noise and “difficult listening.” That is no easy feat, and it will be interesting to see how Friel’s music evolves from here.