Chad VanGaalen

By: Brandon Forbes

The basement record is a staple of rock n’ roll. Torn apart from a ruined relationship or deep in the throes of some deep existential depression, the artist takes to his or her subterranean abode, four-track in hand, to record the sounds of misery. Starflyer 59’s Gold or any number of Elliott Smith’s early records best define this subgenre where self-degradation morphs into timeless earnestness – somehow, someway, it seems, the muse often calls at the darkest hour.
"Flower Gardens" Video

That’s why it’s so surprising that Chad VanGaalen’s newest record stands this age old adage on its head. Culled from scores of songs recorded in his basement over the past few years, Skelliconnection, VanGaalen’s sophomore release through Sub Pop, turns the musty setting of what should be tried and true melancholic inspiration into a locale of unique pop eclecticism not afraid to be playful. This spirit of friskiness harkens back to the Beck of Stereopathic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave. Just as brazen guitar parts, experimental instrumentals, and an occasional mild acoustic number drove those records, so too they emerge on Skelliconnection, though you would be hard pressed to find the comedy of “Satan Gave Me A Taco” here. VanGaalen’s vocal inventiveness mixes with his own musical inventiveness - he created many instruments that are heard on the record - to ultimately craft a basement originating work that refutes existential angst as alone capable of coming from below the living room.

All of this is not to say, however, that the record is upbeat in the sense of traditional pop. On the contrary, an absurdist, eclectic element drives the whole enterprise. This compelling musical vision is transformed visually by VanGaalen’s artistic endeavors both as the artist behind the album art and as the animator that drives the video for album opener “Flower Gardens". Surreal characters, mythical creatures, and malleable human images morph into cartoon shapes both familiar and disturbing as a thick guitar riff, stadium drums, and a lyrical stutter drive what is far and away the most rocking track not only on the record but in VanGaalen’s entire oeuvre. From arena grandeur, VanGaalen moves to a premium, Grade-A choice indie hook in “Burn 2 Ash”, a sure to be college radio and podcast favorite that seals the deal with the catchy chorus call of “I would hope for a true love/Not a pair of handcuffs.” The eclecticism continues with the soft 1980s synths and melancholic drum machine of “Red Hot Drops,” a Dadaist lullaby which ends with an electronic shout out (“Red! Hot! Drops!”). “Rolling Thunder” adds an acoustic dissonance to the mix and a warble that recalls fellow Canadian Win Butler of Arcade Fire as VanGaalen cautions that “She’s in love with everything/everything and anything.”

The variety show feel of these first four tracks continues for the rest of the record. Beck’s influence appears most heavily with the harmonica and guitar feedback which emerges on “Mini T.V.’s”, where modulating synths shroud VanGaalen’s wry observation that “We all love you.” The most straight ahead number on the record is “Graveyard”, where scruffy acoustic strums, a lone bass kick, and an egg shaker form a gentle background for an introspective mortality tale complete with breathy vocal delivery to solidify the spiritual mood. To close out the record, “Dead Ends” creates an anthemic indie rock mood just in time for “Sing Me To Sleep” to remind you of a downtrodden Elliott Smith: “Take this brain/and flush it down the drain.”

Skelliconnection turns the quieter singer-songwriting of Infiniheart into a full fledged “best of” catalog culled from Van Gaalen’s massive music library. Perhaps this varied selection, which changes so rapidly between tracks, could be considered by some as a weakness of the record – but such criticism misses Van Gaalen’s point. “We are growing at the speed of light” VanGaalen cries on banjo-driven “See-Thru-Skin”. Such is his advanced evolutionary outlook, and Skelliconnection lives up to this observation, proving that the basement can be the origin of progressive eclecticism as much as melancholic nostalgia.


All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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