As frontman for the late, great Parts & Labor, Brooklyn’s Dan Friel cultivated an ear for melody; as a prolific solo artist, he’s embraced breakneck velocity. Those tendencies collide ferociously in Upper Wilds, a new trio where guitarist/singer Friel, bassist Zach Lehrhoff, and drummer Aaron Siegel rock with a fevered, noisy intensity. Debut Guitar Module 2017 was recorded at the same studio—Machines With Magnets—where Lightning Bolt cut 2015’s Fantasy Empire, and packs a similarly throttling, panicky punch.
Titled after a U.S. Park Ranger who was struck by lightning seven times, “Roy Sullivan” is a blazing, savage exclamation point, swimming with more guitar hooks, riffs, and textures than the ear can possibly isolate. Windmilling “UFO” and shape-shifting anthem “Let’s Build A Moon” somehow transmogrify amplifier sludge into psychedelic, anthemic forms. The pensive, imposing “Chainsaw” gratuitously apes its namesake; spewing kazoo effects like flop sweat, “Vampire Crane” suggests a Guided By Voices speed metal one-off single.
Yet the thing that stands out most vividly on Guitar Module 2017 is Friel’s increased confidence as both a singer and a lyricist. On Parts & Labor studio recordings, a certain hesitancy hampered his vocal performances. Here, even with his voice buried under and straining to tunnel up through heaps of feedback, he’s projecting with true feeling. Exhortations of “C’mon, fellas,” bear a sincere, urgent weight, and he belts out “We’re falling through the waves” on “UFO” like the most ecstatic rollercoaster rider. And on “Roy Sullivan,” Friel elegantly captures the wonder, the weirdness, and the agony of his tragic subject; it’s a powerful tribute that stuns sonically, initially, then resonates personally thereafter.