Chad VanGaalen

Skelliconnection

(Sub Pop/Flemish Eye; 2006)

By Scott Reid & Aaron Newell | 4 September 2006

This could’ve been so much more complicated. After introducing himself with 2004’s Infiniheart, Calgary-born Chad VanGaalen originally planned to flip his ambitious indie folk-rock persona altogether with a sophomore effort described as “nothing but experimental piano compositions with drum machine accompaniment.” No vocals, no melody, and, judging by leftover Oneida-does-Zappa segues “Systemic Heart” and “Dandrufff,” not much structure, either.

He eventually scrapped the idea, probably realizing the only way he could sell less records would be to follow-up his debut with experimental drum-‘n-piano, a move that would also test the patience of his current small legion of fans, still processing his last record. So, once again embracing his more palatable side, he turned to plan B: mining the same hundreds-plus backstock of songs from which he’d tediously pieced together Infiniheart (says Chad: “it was like pulling hundreds of teeth”), and mixing in a handful of new recordings made since that album’s initial release. But even with the inclusion of some new material, it’s probably best to think of Skelliconnection as being to Infiniheart what Amnesiac was to Kid A: not so much a progression as an extrapolation, an offering from an artist who, by the very nature of his one-guy-in-a-bedroom aesthetic, should be telling us so much about himself when, really, his material has yet to enter real time. If Infiniheart made you wonder what was at the bottom of VanGaalen’s murky pool of material, Skelliconnection deepens the well, stirs the waters, and offers a snorkel-shaped question mark: “who the fuck is this guy?”

You can take some cues from the bio: Chad comes from Calgary, Alberta, a conflicted, mid-size city that’s now spoonfed Canadian oil money, and is situated around a beautiful river, inside one of Canada’s most breathtaking mountain panoramas. So we have a tall, lanky Albertan who can wake up to a postcard every day, who sees an influx of technology and machinery and modern excess in this environment, and who seems to want to take as much inspiration as possible from his surrounds. He spends his fantastical days drawing and animating and making music, lots and lots of music, collected like diary entries and handed out, up until now, on homemade CD-Rs wrapped in pages from old National Geographic magazines. Focus in closer on his art, and his personalities spiral out like, to use his own simile against him, “those new floating highways.” As an artist and animator his work ranges from fascinatingly creepy animated videos featuring combinations of birds and entrails and engines and pistons and flowers and human faces, to album covers/liner artwork mixing childlike scribbles with colourful, intricately detailed paintings. As a musician, he’s pretty much whatever he wants to be: the reserved folkie, the exaggerated riff-rocker, the indie-pop eccentric, The Eraser. Hell, on one as-of-yet unreleased track, he even takes on freestyle rap (sample: “you don’t want to mess with my insane unruliness”; he also rhymes “griddle” with “fiddle”). Seriously.

It’s this kind of intrinsic disregard for musical template that keeps VanGaalen from falling into cliche categorical foxholes, writing samey songs in the same samey styles. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his tunes are all beautifully sung (often layered, a wavering falsetto over his mild tenor) and cleverly arranged, as only he could, since he builds most of his instruments. And though he has access to and can play more instruments than he’s able to list in the liner notes (maybe he should consider one of those Architecture in Helsinki dot-charts, except he’s just one person, not eleven), he rarely uses the same combination or effect twice. Instead, he’s constantly changing setups and approaches to his recording, toying with each song’s atmosphere and tone to keep it all from getting monotonous, especially when he’s retreading similar ground. Just compare the light, sole bass drum and electric-guitar-as-muted-trumpet bounce of “Graveyard” with “Wing Finger’s” loose, rhythmic banjo and “Rolling Thunder’s” haunting, nearly claustrophobic vocal mix. He’s not always so subtle in how he presents his songs — i.e. the pounding distortion of “Flower Gardens” or nuzzling synths of “Red Hot Drops”; the kind of stuff that pops out even on cursory listens — but, like Infiniheart, a great deal of this record’s appeal rests in its smallest details and touches, which can be as affecting as moments like “Dead End’s” operatic chorus, just way easier to miss.

Which may explain why VanGaalen, always standing on the other side of your kaleidoscope, can’t seem to sell a damn record, and is once again subject to a confoundingly-discrepant slate of critical response. Sad but true: despite VanGaalen’s admirable tour schedule and the just-enough passionate press presenting him as a new “Outsider Icon,” his profoundly-rewarding Infiniheart has sold a paltry 2600 copies since its re-release exactly one year ago. Granted, that could be par for the re-released indie-weirdo debut album course, but that figure still feels low — insulting, even — especially if you’ve already been circulated through Infiniheart and have yet to shake the chill. The positive side is that it’s a sure bet that those 2600 people have been wholly-swept-away in that record, and can therefore relate VanGaalen’s plight to the few other slow-to-go “artistic” musicians whose brilliance is acknowledged over a timeline of water-torture drops, rather than a slippery-slope-making mudslide. Not to put too much emphasis on “getting it,” but, in this case, to know is usually to love. Or fall victim to, since VanGaalen’s Buckley-like banshee chinook, wielding semi-concious dreamspeak, claws, climbs, and burrows into your brain where it hibernates and sheds new-Canadian-gothica in its sleep.

Infiniheart was riddled with that stuff, and Skelliconnection expands on it, but sets it to less-hazy, and therefore more-REM (the sleep-stage), rock music. See “See-Thru-Skin” where Chad takes the Toronto public transport system, where the air is actually fresher than it is outside, and sandwiches it between two distinct hints at the Great-North: “I can feel my lungs fill full with air / they are pinkish red and branch right out / like the tracks in the subways / or the horns of a caribou.” Elsewhere it’s not as obvious, but always implied, as he intertwines themes of man and nature and the nature of man, and in man, and “progress” and, naturally, death. On “Wing Finger” he finger-picks from North Texas and connects the minutiae to the meta: “We are growing at the speed of light / Every single piece is synchronized / even you”; the poignantly-titled “Flower Gardens” equates overthinking death with dog-paddling in a sewer, but panics at its inability to resist the temptation: “If you wanna get inside of it / you’ll be swimming through the pipes / shouldn’t we just make the best of it / if there’s no time / I know it’s all gonna end.” “Hot Red Drops” morphs the law of the jungle/forest into a compacted analogy for the minutes and seconds of the human lifespan, complete with embedded hints to savour every last bit: “Sharpened teeth that dive deep into veins / slowly draining with no pain / sinking in and drinking in the thick, wet, / hot, red / drops.” It’s not so much kill-or-be-killed as eat-while-being-eaten; and while that’s as far as we’re prepared to go into the Tao of Chad, it’s remarkable how a minimal investment in this apparent pastiche of songs reveals a fascinating story of an artist obeying a very specific muse, maybe against his own better judgment.

In fact, “Sing Me 2 Sleep,” which would close the album if not for “Systemic Heart’s” final synaptic convulsions, follows that muse to its own desperate conclusion. In the face of his repeated struggles to stay awake — like “Gubbbish’s” repeated chorus of “I’m never going to sleep,” or “Mini T.V.‘s” final lyric (“mix tapes / trying to stay awake”), quietly falsetto’d over giddy chimes — the song finds VanGaalen practically begging to be relieved: “Take this lonesome brain and wash it down the drain / push it through pipes / into the sewer where it came from.” We’re again back to sewer pipes, death’s constant loom, and the artist’s dogged concern with it. In asking to be sung to sleep, VanGaalen asks to be surrounded by song and art and inspiration for as long as he lives, because he needs these things to keep “sleep” from dominating his thoughts. The song’s much more about what happens when he’s awake than the lullaby it wears on its face.

And this is where the coherence of his work comes into play: if “infiniheart” is a reference to an endless potential in individuality and art and expression as muse and comfort, but also to how easily the potential is squandered by assimilation and complacency, then the squandering is our “skelliconnection,” the inescapable common denominator of sticks and bones that tie us together, that are equally a part of some collective conscious. It’s a spin on dust-to-dust, a reference to whatever we’re born from, which we each change in our own little ways, and then return to. Go back to “Wing Finger,” and VanGaalen’s “one thing” that has “transformed into everything, even you”; it’s what each of us are ultimately connected by, regardless of the choices we make.

Happy Canadian Gothorama time! We apologize for going there, but it’s important to point out that VanGaalen is not in the business of peddling ad-hoc, sloppy compilations of “used” material, or treating his music as a low priority, or his second line of business. In fact, his last minute alterations to Skelliconnection’s tracklist show that he toils over the coherence and consistency of his packaged work. But, most importantly, it’s essential to consider why VanGaalen might have wanted to get more of this work off of his chest, and out into peoples’ heads, before pushing forward with new material. And here’s the best part: where exactly is all of this leading? At this point, from this artist, comfortable in the catalogued-cocoon that he’s built completely on his own terms, anything seems possible. And, beyond what he’s already accomplished with just two records, knowing that his next release is as likely to channel Glenn Branca as it is Hayden is a big part of what makes VanGaalen such a unique, compelling talent — one certainly worth some tangible fan support this time around, if not just so he doesn’t get dropped by his (kind, hopefully understanding) label. The last thing anyone wants is to be in a 2600-person line-up for one of 50 CDRs of his next release. And since it is indeed true that his music could be a lot better than it is (which is: beautiful, thematic, meticulous, revelatory, and challenging), there’s no need to let such potential languish, ignored for lack of, well, heart.