Upper Wilds - Mars - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Upper Wilds - Mars

by Jon Burke Rating:8 Release Date:2018-10-19
Upper Wilds - Mars
Upper Wilds - Mars

The song begins with a dissonant twinkling of feedback. A fuzzy, majestic guitar riff. A supportive bass hum. This melange of sounds repeat and blend, swirling up into a truly explosive rocker of a track with the introduction of bashing drums. Dan Friel's voice, which barely emerges from the immense field of distortion, is at once melodic and machined as if a laptop gained sentience and surmised that shouting on-key was more emotionally compelling than its default Hawking-esque monotone. This track, "Wine Flies", typifies the listening experience to be found on the latest record from Upper Wilds, Mars. Friel and company continue their run as the reigning masters of rusted distortion, deftly threading the needle between sludge, electronica and noise rock while maintaining a firm footing in melodic pop. Upper Wilds always want you singing along--even as they rattle your eardrums and fry your central nervous system.

Mars starts out with "Dead Mail", a psychedelic rocker of a tune with a whining, staccato, repetitive opening note reminiscent of the kind of EDM that, without proper precautions, can aurally transmit STIs to susceptible listeners. For the briefest of moments, one wonders if Friel has lost his mind and gone the way of Tiesto, and half the population of Jacksonville, FL, dubstepping his way to a new and disturbing career. Thankfully, the ruse is quickly dispelled with Friel's ten-ton guitar sound and the bombast of Jeff Ottenbacher's drums shattering the frat party illusion into a wave of noise and a galloping beat. It's worth noting that Friel posted a clip on the band's Facebook page which reveals that the EDM effect opening "Dead Mail" is actually just vocals processed through an effects pedal: 

"Hellcoder" boasts a secret weapon, Young People's Katie Eastburn, whose gorgeous, uncut, backing vocals harmonize with Friel's fuzzy crooning and the results are truly pleasing. A full album of this pairing would be a welcome gift for fans of either artist. Eastburn's voice is somehow slightly gritty and yet butter-smooth in the same instant. Though they're effectively singing the same part, Eastburn links-up her vocals to Friel's like a harmonic cog, helping to propel the song toward its inevitably quick conclusion. Eastburn joins Friel again for the album's lead single, "Perfect Eyesight", which continues to highlight the perfection of the pairing but doesn't quite achieve the pop appeal of "Hellcoder".

"Mars" the album's title track consists of a wall of distortion, from which Friel, Ottenbacher, and bassist Zach Lehrhoff joyously play with unique time signatures, bizarre keyboard-esque vocal sounds and one of the album's catchiest choruses: "We'll make ourselves at home again/ And we'll claim every inch as our own! 'Til we feel it in our bones again." The album's theme, Mars colonization, seems to include a critique of the manifest destiny mentality that drove humanity to our current state living on the brink of extinction. We bleed our world dry shortly after setting out in search of a new world to bleed. This kind of tech cynicism aligns perfectly with Upper Wild's sound -- a merging of the biological and technological to create something intense but with a pop appeal.

Mars' closer, "Ex-Frontiers," is the album's longest and most fully-realized track. Guitars humming like a swarm of bees launching the song, like a rocket, into the stratosphere. Friel intones: "And you're a million miles from home/ Asking how far you can go/ And they'll tell you ‘bout the next place that you can claim/ Because these ex-frontiers they all just look the same..." The false dichotomy of old vs. new, Coke vs. Pepsi and the familiar vs. the alien takes shape here. Friel and company point to intense ennui which results from "settling" a wild place so as to make it hospitable for capitalism: "A dust storm howling through years/ Now the dead mall moved here/ And you're never quite far enough away." Imagine moving across the galaxy to get away from the mediocrity of unchecked capitalism only to arrive at your destination and find the mall ready and waiting for you to settle down and shop, shop, shop. With Mars, Upper Wilds remind listeners that no matter where one goes, there they are. To really change, to really be better, we need some inward exploration first before we go too far with the outward exploration and simply swap out blue skies for red.

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