(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 endlessly charming Infiniheart, Chad VanGaalen had 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 how high up the Zappa scale leftover segues “Systemic Heart” and “Dandrufff” register, not much structure, either.
He eventually scrapped the idea, probably realizing the only way he could sell fewer 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”), while also mixing in a handful of new recordings made since that album’s initial release. 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 surroundings. 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”). Yes, 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 – e.g. 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-conscious dreamspeak, claws, climbs, and burrows into your brain where it hibernates and sheds new-Canadian-gothica in its sleep.
Skelliconnection largely recaptures what made that debut so easy to obsess over. It expands on the same playfully dour Canadian Gothorama ground enough to make it clear why he wanted to get more of this work off of his chest, and out into peoples’ heads, before pushing forward with new material. It doesn’t get us much closer to knowing where, exactly, all this is going, though; at this point, from this artist, comfortable in the catalogued-cocoon that he’s built on his own terms, anything seems possible. 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 CD-Rs of his next release. And since it is indeed true that his music could be even more than it already is (which, again: beautiful, meticulous, a little creepy), there’s no need to let such potential languish, ignored for lack of, well, heart.