Album Review: Upper Wilds, Guitar Module 2017

Upper Wilds
Guitar Module 2017

Dan Friel is a bit of an underground icon in Brooklyn, New York. In recent years, he’s built a reputable name for himself as a solo, electropop musician. Stepping out of this familiar sonic realm, he has created a new project called Upper Wilds. Having recently released their debut record, Guitar Module 2017, a re-enforcement of the elements prominent in noise and synth-based genres is certainly evident, yet tastefully subtle. This project presents a rich, complementary flavor to Friel’s past works, notably in that it’s a full-band project. Even though the album delivers listeners the familiar songwriting format of many indie and pop records, it remains awesomely experimental and bravely fuzzy.

And why shouldn’t it be? Much of the album’s lyrical aesthetics borrow from some spacey and electrifying concepts. Take their title track “Roy Sullivan,” a song dedicated to the infamous park ranger from Shenandoah National Park who was struck seven times by lightning. With Friel’s experimental approach to yielding distortion for artistic expression, combined with his story-telling approach to lyricism, you can almost feel the electrical current resonating through your body as if a bolt of lightning struck you too. In a tasteful juxtaposition to this electrically charged motif, you’ll find Friel’s vocal harmonies to be some of the most distinguishing aspects that make this album so enjoyable. At times, it’s almost reminiscent of something you’d hear in a country album, but not in an overt or pretentious way. It’s this quality that prohibits the intense, noise-laden undercurrent from alienating casual music-listeners. For many, this album could serve nicely as a gateway of sorts into underground, experimental subgenres…or perhaps it’s more of a noise-inspired monolith if you want to get all Stanley Kubrick about it.

The album’s first full-song opener, “UFO,” is as equally anthemic as it is catchy. There’s a distinct sense of anti-gravity in this tune, largely influenced by its driving and bending guitar riffs. The drums drop out a lot on this track, but always return with a vengeance; they’re deadest on making you bob your head harder than you did in the preceding measures. You may just indeed feel like you’re floating through space at times, or perhaps just partying your way through it. This song proves that every member of your band is responsible for creating a pulse that propels a song forward; you can’t just rely on your drummer for that.

There’s never a dull moment during the album’s efficient but engaging 25-minute run time. There’s a perpetually spacey vibe throughout, notably on tracks like “Let’s Build a Moon” and “Black Holes.” Each song is unique enough in its own merits to warrant additional listening, but the overall aesthetic of the album is one that is consistently and distinctly Upper Wilds.

Closing out the album is “Emma Dean Crater,” a delightful and brief rock and roll lullaby of sorts. Aptly named after an astronomically significant impact crater on Mars, the song may be instrumental and quick, but it certainly lends itself to metaphoric interpretation. Long story short, this crater resides in a Martian plain believed by many scientists to be a home to ancient hot springs; a strong indicator that life may have existed on the planet billions of years ago. The album leaves you with a warm and inspiring feeling, accentuated strongly by the notion that we may not be alone in the universe, or maybe even in our own solar system.

Guitar Module 2017, the debut album from Upper Wilds, was released September 22, via Thrill Jockey Records. The album is available for sale on the band’s Bandcamp page, and can be streamed via Spotify. Check it out! – Andrew Humphrey