Chad VanGaalen


(Flemish Eye/Sub Pop; 2004/2005)

By David Greenwald | 1 September 2005

Chad VanGaalen. How often do musicians appear out of nowhere, with a self-recorded album, and get signed to a super-label like Sub Pop? How often is the super-label's reissue of that same self-recorded album among the record company's best of the year? There's no shortage of love for VanGaalen and his debut album here at CMG (last year's hyperbole, year-end list, etc.), and with good reason. The Calgarian's phenomenal sense of arrangement and production, honed over years of home recording, allows him to take a Radiohead-like recording approach to his quavering Neil Young ballads. Though now pruned down to sixteen tracks, Infiniheart still manages to sound both epic and vitally, unavoidably moving.

VanGaalen defines the term "recording artist." Every inch of Infiniheart is criss-crossed with experimental touches; after the relatively straightforward "Clinically Dead," he begins dropping hints as to his studio savvy with the lazy harmonies and lingering acoustic guitars of "After The Afterlife." Headphone enthusiasts will discover plenty of hidden treasures throughout, like the doubled chorus vocals of "Kill Me In My Sleep" or the back-and-forth percussion of "Blood Machine," but VanGaalen saves many of his tricks for the album's sole instrumental track, "J.C.'s Head on the Cross."

Like a rusty Chemical Brothers beat from back when they were still fresh and exciting, "J.C." is all gnarled drum and bass until the :53 second mark. Then the bass drops off, leaving room for the imminent guitar maelstrom. Dirty distortion rears its head for a brief half-minute, only to be pulled back again so the song can unleash an acid-rock guitar line and stomping drum rhythm bordered by whirring, too-fast drum loops that sound like bees swarming past your car window at 100 miles per hour. It all happens in a mere three minutes and then the album moves on to another folk song, only this time, the ebbing and flowing "Somewhere, I Know There's Nothing" presents insistent percussion and flittering field recordings. It's a breathtaking track-to-track transition, the result of insightful editing by Sub Pop: on the album's initial release, "The Warp Zone / Hidden Bridge" helped lead into "J.C.'s Head on the Cross" with its "A Punch Up At A Wedding" bass figures, but on this edition, with "Warp Zone's" tactful relocation, we're left blissfully unprepared.

There's depth beyond Infiniheart's immaculate sonic beds. VanGaalen has a lot to sing about, and despite his high-pitched vocals, it's not always pretty. "Blood Machine" is his most blatant nod to the sci-fi paranoia Radiohead has always been so enamored with, describing a Matrix-like future where "they used to be free / before the machines got built / and there were laws regulating free will." "Echo Train" displays a similar sense of fear for the narrator to fight against, asking "Why do you think it's gonna end?" before imploring the antagonist to "Stop dragging us down / eventually this future's gonna swallow you." The vocals throughout are mixed perhaps lower than they should be, almost swallowed up in the canyons of sound; there's an intentional distance here, a level of separation that parallels the lyrics' yearning desperation to connect.

In fact, throughout Infiniheart, there is an express fixation on impenetrable boundaries and barriers, whether they're of the literal science fiction type or on a more metaphysical plane; sleep, be it natural (the asleep-at-the-wheel exhaustion of "1000 Pound Eyelids") or artificially-induced (the comatose figure of "Clinically Dead") is a frequent theme of the album, along with love that lies just out of reach. "Build a Home Like a Bee" is the most desperate of the love songs, starting out hopeful enough – "I don't have to look at you / I can stare at your reflection instead," the sadness masked for a few verses by major chords and buoyant percussion – but concludes with VanGaalen, alone, shivering: "You don't know me, but I'd like to build you a home in the trees."

Though Sub Pop would have done well by leaving in "Human Totem," the removal of instrumental pieces "Graduated Assassin" and "Dolphinariums" speeds the album along into its final section. VanGaalen puts away the doom and gloom on the bluesy "Sunshine Snare Hits" and the perky "Liquid And Light"; nevertheless, the inevitably dystopian future is never too far from his mind, as he sings about not wanting to grow older in "Liquid and Light" and ultimately chooses denial instead.

As Scott Reid mentioned in his review of Infiniheart's original issue, the album bears a passing resemblance to The Microphones' The Glow, Pt. 2. Like that album, Infiniheart is a loose song cycle built around a few central themes, flowing from unexpectedly heavy moments to whispery tenderness with a similar lo-fi aesthetic. Though VanGaalen's arrangements go several steps beyond Phil Elverum's in scope and complexity, both songwriters exist very much in worlds of their own creation. If he tries to bury himself under rock guitars in the concluding "Traffic," he can't hide for long: Infiniheart is too bright, too beautiful, and almost too good to be believed.