hough he’s first and foremost an indie-pop singer-songwriter, it’s tough to assess Chad VanGaalen in that role. Apparently it’s one he doesn’t particularly care very much about filling, and to hear him tell it, it wasn’t really even his decision to become one in the first place.
VanGaalen considers himself a visual artist and animator above all else, so already music in general isn’t his main priority. On top of that, the stuff VanGaalen initially was peddling in his hometown of Calgary was almost entirely instrumental, frequently utilizing modified instruments VanGaalen himself had constructed. Only when friend Ian Russell offered to release his music formally and talked him into adding vocals did VanGaalen even begin dipping his toes into the possibilities of pop.
The result was last year’s under-the-radar delight Infiniheart as well as VanGaalen’s newest release, the briefer and more fitfully engaging Skelliconnection. Were they both purely instrumental recordings, both albums would probably be virtually negligible, though that’s not to say VanGaalen might not have several wordless gems stowed away amongst the hundreds of songs he’s recorded in his bedroom over the past 5+ years.
What it does say is that VanGaalen possesses an almost preternatural melodic knack, not to mention a lovely, quavering voice and occasionally captivating lyrical eye. As you might expect, however, VanGaalen’s apparent disregard for more conventional forms of musical craftsmanship (he claims in one interview that “I'm more into music that's experimental and not so sing-songy”) means that often his best melodic and lyrical moments are (perhaps unwittingly) subverted and undermined.
Take “Red Hot Drops,” maybe the most spellbinding moment of the entire album, featuring a hauntingly fragile image of “sharpened teeth that dive deep into veins” but ending with an obnoxious repetition of the title over ugly squelching synths. “Burn to Ash” is probably the most exhilarating tune, powered by a fantastically reckless organ, but one that ends with more than a minute of forgettable and noisy detritus. Likewise, sizable portions of “Gubbish” and “Mini TVs” are chewed up by ineffectively repeated refrains.
VanGaalen claims to not be a big music guy, but the references on Skelliconnection are pretty easy to spot, further proof that it’s always better to listen to more music than less if you want to make something that sounds original. One Foot in the Grave-era Beck sporadically pops up, as does Neil Young, while the album’s most rousing and impassioned rocking, found on “Dead Ends,” is instantly reminiscent of Radiohead’s The Bends (though it’s admittedly still pretty effective).
I’m inclined to claim VanGaalen doesn’t quite manage to put it all together on any of these songs—“Graveyard” is lyrically the most stunning, with its line about ghosts leaking out of the ground, but musically it’s too underdeveloped. That’s not to say VanGaalen isn’t capable of achieving something singularly gripping—he accomplished it on Infiniheart with “Blood Machine” and “Somewhere I Know There Is Nothing.”
I understand VanGaalen’s multitalented, and if he wants to treat music like Shaq treats acting then that’s fine. It’s just a shame when he’s so melodically gifted and lyrically evocative. His music could be a good deal better than it is, and it’s already about a million times better than Kazaam.