Dan Friel celebrates fatherhood, Oneida honors its heroes
Video games have evolved significantly in the last few decades, but think back to ’80s/’90s coin-op and Nintendo games and specifically the music made for them; if there was a purpose behind the music, it was to inspire the player to continue running, fighting, shooting, flying, etc. Keep moving forward! Keep inserting quarters! The princess needs you! Don’t give up—Battletoads is not impossible!
One can’t help but think of video game music from that era when listening to the new album Life by Brooklyn musician Dan Friel, and perhaps in some way, it was made in order to inspire himself to keep going, despite being tired and overwhelmed. You see, Friel’s album is celebrating the birth of his son, and if the song title “Sleep Deprivation” is any indication, it’s an immense joy that bears a price.
One of the most prominent instruments on Life is a Yamaha Portasound keyboard, which many professional musicians would likely consider to be a toy; however, it has a significance that ties in with the album’s theme, being Friel’s first-ever musical instrument.
The album stands apart from the parade of 8-bit faux-Nintendo music offerings of the last 15 years or so—some would call the phenomenon played out—by being severely distorted. The opening “Lullaby (For Wolf)” is tender and sweet, with a Theremin-esque floating melody, and “Theme” is similarly mild, resembling something on Raymond Scott’s three-volume Soothing Sounds for Baby, but those are the only serene moments you’ll get.
Certain notes on the track “Rattler” are pushed to the point of almost falling apart and dissolving into white noise, and “Sleep Deprivation” features doses of warped, squealing feedback, which can be draining for the listener.
The track “Life (Pt. 2)” uses optimistic and motivational melodies, buried under oppressive distortion, and if the album could be a video game character, it would be an adorable, small yet bloodthirsty superhero with a furrowed brow and scowl. Life is an album that demonstrates that it’s possible to be whimsical and cute while simultaneously being devastating and annihilating
It used to be that the Brooklyn outfit Oneida, now in its 18th year of existence, tied together its own eclectic, open-minded aesthetic with a base centered on the throb of rock music, with killer guitar riffs, aggressive and distorted keyboard vamps and the potent drumming of Kid Millions.
Even in its early days, it’s never been quite so easy to define Oneida, and it just gets harder, with releases like the Thank Your Parents triptych, with drones and an improvisational spirit, sometimes forgoing “normal”-sounding drumming for pulses with no obligations to rock traditions; or take 2005’s The Wedding, which flirted with a Ren Fair/early classical vibe and made it work.
The new 3-track half-hour mini-album Positions is perhaps a palate-cleanser, but it’s a compelling one, featuring two covers and one original. The opening track “S.P.Q.R.” is a charged version of the classic number from the inventive, frequently mind-blowing British group This Heat’s 1981 album Deceit. Although it doesn’t reinvent the song, it’s a solid take, with the adrenaline-fueled intensity and nervousness of the original, with swift, muscle-building strumming and an ending marked with sonic disintegration.
The somber, ominous instrumental “Under Whose Sword” uses a two-note bass line to establish a walking pace while drones create a grey fog; seemingly aimless guitar notes appear sporadically and despairingly, adding to a puzzling and melancholic sound canvas.
The third piece is a 16-minute cover of the dystopian sci-fi group Chrome’s “All Data Lost” from the deliciously bizarre and sinister 1977 album Alien Soundtracks; Oneida’s version retains the 3-minute original track’s general structure, with both being haunted and largely amorphous with disorienting, echoing vocal fragments until a steady drum beat provides a post-Krautrock momentum.
With 16 minutes to spread its wings, it’s a psychedelic interstellar voyage, but not in the hippie/stoner easygoing group-hug way—it’s more in line with the brown-acid five-seconds-from-freaking-out way, with chaotic shards hurtling by the disquieting murkiness.
It’s an indulgence in several ways, but it’s stirring and perhaps not totally solipsistic—and what artists haven’t wanted to pay tribute to their heroes?