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Dan Friel - Valedictorian / Exoskeleton

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Artist: Dan Friel

Album: Valedictorian / Exoskeleton

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Oct. 15, 2012

Dan Friel’s solo rig is a rat’s nest of keyboard interface, knobs, samplers, pedals, wires and switches, compact enough to fit in a suitcase, and jerry-rigged and vaguely bomb-like enough to make you wonder how he ever gets through airport security. Since Parts & Labor folded — and even before — he has been coaxing an extraordinary variety of sounds from this self-designed and self-made apparatus, coarse blares of feedback, delicate patterns of synth, pummeling rhythms, and the kind of triumphant, joy-bubbling anthems that, except for the lack of vocals, sound very much like Parts & Labor. This interim EP contains four very different cuts, two originals and two remixes from like-minded noise-inflected tunesmiths, Moss of Aura (who also plays with Future Islands) and Peaking Lights.

“Valedictorian” is the gateway drug for people wandering in from Parts & Labor’s general direction, its manic throb of rhythm overlaid with soaring, large-scale musical positivity. It wouldn’t take much, really hardly a nudge, a few lefty lyrics maybe, to turn this track into the kind of Hüsker Dü-ish melodic mayhem that the old band specialized in. It’s a glorious, happy kind of noise, and if the upward chord shift in the middle of the track doesn’t give you a whiff of optimism, you are pretty deep into the greys. “Exoskeleton,” the second original, is far more shadowy and ominous, blares of distortion crashing into an insistent, repetitive, rather engrossing keyboard figure. Karen Waltuch (an occasional performer with Anti-Social Music) is on hand with her viola, tracing ghostly, sustained notes that hover and curl over the main melody.

Moss of Aura remixes “Exoskeleton,” grounding the cut in a blippy, glitch dance rhythm and burying the wandering keyboard under a mass of rhythmic celebration. It’s hardly the same song. All the darkness, most of the ambiguity has been vacuumed out, and in its place, a kind of buoyant, kinetic restlessness. The second remix comes from Peaking Lights, whose own work tends toward the luminous. A live version of Friel’s “Ulysses” (which is available at the Free Music Archive) is nearly submerged under rolling waves of distortion, a child’s piano trapped at the bottom of mess and violence. After a little while, a bright bar of melody is allowed to emerge, primary-colored and simple, splintering at intervals into rapid flourishes. You’d think that Peaking Lights would highlight the melody. But what they really pick up is the noise, using it to roughen up a precise, staccato dance beat. There’s a sense of play and daring. The melody, when it comes, darts in and among strong, rough-edged machinery, a ducking under blustery down beats, recoiling from razor-edged upbeats.

The EP is less than half an hour long, and without the relatively expansive Peaking Lights remix, it would barely clear the 10-minute mark. That’s not a complaint. There’s plenty to like in this abbreviated outing, and hardly anything to raise the hackles. There’s a full-length, Total Folklore, coming early next year (it will, among other things, have Friel’s version of “Ulysses”), but until then, Valedictorian/Exoskeleton is a pretty good stop-gap.

By Jennifer Kelly

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