By Sarah Kitteringham
Flemish Eye Records
Without a doubt, alienation and disassociation are at the core of Chad VanGaalen’s bizarre and beautiful indie rock. Since his early days as a street busker in Calgary’s core, VanGaalen has been nebulous and moody, effortlessly shape shifting between genres and styles. While previous works have always retained his singularly odd and utterly ramshackle style, they’ve also flirted with country (Shrink Dust), blipping electronica (Diaper Island and Soft Airplane), alternative folk (Infiniheart and Skelliconnection) and experimental techno (his 2015 collaboration with Seth Smith, Seed of Dorozon). Albums are further heightened with the bizarre bleeps and bonks of homemade instruments, delightful contraptions that are best enjoyed when witnessed in a live setting alongside VanGaalen’s disarming animations.
On sixth solo studio album Light Information, VanGaalen has somewhat reverted to the stylistic proceedings of his earlier days. The result is a record that’s startlingly in line with both 2006’s Skelliconnection and 2008’s follow-up Soft Airplane. Opener “Mind Hijackers Curse” kicks off the proceedings, with Chad’s slightly layered, reverberating vocals making an almost immediate appearance. The drums are clattering and understated, and the vague and hard-to-pinpoint background instrumentation evokes a plinking, plunking sound that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi movie. Of course, this is right in line with his previous output: he has long been fascinated by the subject, most notably materializing in his 2015 short film ‘Tarboz,’ which tells the story of an intergalactic space traveller. If you’ve yet to witness it, think the animation style of Adult Swim’s disturbing Superjail!, as utilized by Wes Anderson. It’s a wonder to behold.
“Prep Piano and 770” is the first jarring track of the record, flirting with the same noise that made his side project Black Mold damn near unlistenable for anyone disinterested in the genre. While menacing keys bleep and bop, cascading keys set the tone for follow-up track “Host Body.” The lyrics are the strongest of the release, as Chad forebodingly croons, “I’ll be the host body yes, for the parasitic demons. They can eat me from the inside out, I already hear them chewing.” Herein, the similarity to Soft Airplane’s “Poisonous Heads” is obvious: the song is stark, and slightly bouncy, spinning foreboding tales of the future.
Later on, “Old Heads” is upbeat and joyous jangly pop. In particular, the chorus is infectious and sung high– “WHO IS THE OPERATOR, KEEPING ALL MY CELLS TOGETHER?!” – and is sure to incite a future sing-along at gigs. Later on, “Faces Lit” has a similar vibe with its a sway inducing style. “Pine And Clover” evokes the yowl of Neil Young with its layered style and lazy, folkish guitars.
After nearly two decades of making music, VanGaalen’s ruminations have grown more contemplative, yet remain consistently dark. Long associated with the archetype of a man-child (a moniker Chad himself has used) for his forays into implausible fantasy territory, his lyrics skirt between out-of-this-world and highly relatable. “Broken Bell” illustrates this.
“I sit and do a drawing, A portrait of my dad, I should really visit him, Before he is dead. Cause we are getting old, Our cells just won’t divide like their told. I’m not really good, At this kind of thing. Should I take the advice of the graffiti on the wall telling me to go suck it? Or should I listen to the voices ringing in my head, like a broken bell?”
Family is a recurrent theme, particularly now that VanGaalen is a proud father. Relevant to that point, it sounds like there is a distorted, childish croon in opener “Mind Hijacker’s Curse” (though on the former, it might just be the Korg 770 monosynth he fixed up for the release). Childish sounds appear again, but this time much clearer, in closer “Static Shape.” Evidently, the backing vocals are provided by his daughter Pip and Ezzy. In the closing song, the effect of modulated childish noise is pleasant, particularly in conjunction with the jaunty keyboards.
Although it’s not out of character, when the last 30 seconds or so of “Static Shape” end in noise territory that is unpleasantly jarring and squealing, it does not benefit the album. It’s likely the intention to be confrontational this way directly after the album’s sweetest moments, but it seems unnecessary. Fittingly, Soft Airplane ended in a similar fashion with a full noise track dubbed “Frozen Energon,” though that track was far longer with a better sonic arc.
All told, Light Information offers nothing particularly new in the Chad VanGaalen universe; it remains a wonderful addition to his catalog that’s likely to dominate the earshot! charts for months and be nominated for a Polaris Prize. In short, VanGaalen is well on his way to being the type of musician we remember in decades to come, courtesy of his bizarre bent on Canadiana.Chad VanGaalen, Light Information, Record Review