Indie Rocker Chad VanGaalen Takes Fans on a Surreal Joyride at the Hi-Fi.
Those few of you that read the preview may recall me saying that I am a fan of Chad VanGaalen. For those of you who did not, allow me to reiterate: I am a fan of Chad VanGaalen. Have been for years, in fact. Which likely clouds my judgement somewhat. Even so, I think that VanGaalen is a unique and innovative performer. Certainly a performer well worth catching when he comes to town.
A Brief History
This will be a recap for those of you that read the preview, so feel free to skip ahead. Those of you who didn’t, focus up and pay attention. Chad VanGaalen is a lifelong resident of Calgary, Alberta. Which, for those of you who failed world geography, is in Canada.
He began his career in 1998, cutting tracks at home. Think Daniel Johnston but with more production and better equipment. After all, home recording technology has improved since the late ’70s, no? After several self-produced releases, VanGaalen singed with Canadian indie label Flemish Eye in 2004. Shortly thereafter, Flemish Eye put out Infiniheart, an album made up of VanGaalen’s home recorded material. An easy thing to do, since he had so much of it. In fact, it would not be until his third album, 2008’s Soft Airplane, that VanGaalen would record new material. Since then, VanGaalen’s career has rolled steadily along, with several albums and collaborations with other artists.
VanGaalen is something of a polymath. As well as being a musician and songwriter, he is also a producer and an animator. As a producer, he almost never uses professional studios, preferring to record at home. And as an animator, he animates his own music videos. The general upshot is that its homemade nature is integral to VanGaalen’s sound. A sort of musical auteurism that allows him to have a degree of control over his own sound that few artists do.
His basic composition style tends towards the simple, with studio effects added to give depth and additional form. In particular, VanGaalen uses reverb to create space in his songs. You know, that effect producers use to make guitar or vocal tracks sound like they’re echoing in big empty room. VanGaalen uses that, along with lo-fi recording techniques to give his songs a distant, tinny aspect. This is especially notable in his vocals, which sound like they’re coming from across a vast dark gulf. This really goes to show just how important production in music is. Many of the best aspects of VanGaalen’s sound simply would not exist without his studio work.
In terms of genre, VanGaalen incorporates folk, indie rock, electronic music, noise pop, and even elements of punk. While an usual mixture, the cumulative effect is unforgettable. His voice is often compared to Neil Young’s or a less breathy Eliot Smith. To wit, VanGaalen typically sings in a high, tremulous falsetto with a wailing cadence. It’s expressive, to say the least, and goes well with his playing style. His guitar work is typically jangly, with softer distortion effects applied. While complexity varies from song to song, VanGaalen typically uses only a few chords. This is good because, as noted above, he has more room for the electronic aspects of his sound.
His lyrics are also notable. Frequently dealing with alienation or loneliness in way that manages to be direct and elliptical all at once. When they aren’t just plain surreal. In all, VanGaalen’s music is well-crafted and inventive, a treat to hear. Elemental, but not primitive.
Now that we have all the technical points out of the way, how does Chad VanGaalen sound live? Pretty good, but a little different would be the short answer. Here’s the long one.
But before I get into all that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give the opening act a little attention. Currently touring with Chad VanGaalen is band by the name of Un Blonde, also signed to Flemish Eye. Using a blend of R&B and jazz, Un Blonde played a largely improvised set, an impressive feat in itself. While there were numerous pauses, which were rather distracting, their musicianship and their singer’s remarkable voice carried them through. Stage issues aside, I’m curious to see what they will produce in the future.
After VanGaalen’s labelmates cleared the stage, I used the brief intermission to gauge the mood of the room. No one actually looked antsy or anxious, but there was a sort of nervous excitement in the air. When VanGaalen finally took the stage, it was like a collective held breath was released.
His Live Sound
The majority of VanGaalen’s material came from his latest album, Light Information, which saw release in September. While not exactly new territory for VanGaalen, the music worked pretty well in a live setting. Possibly better than some of his earlier material, which was more electronically oriented, would have. Played live, with more limited instrumentation, VanGaalen’s work sounds darker and heavier. Not that he suddenly turns into a rivet-head as a live performer. No, it’s more that since he has to work with what effects the venue has. So the noise elements of his sound come forward to do what the electronic elements normally would. Largely, though, this doesn’t affect the overall character of his music. It’s still the same sound his fans have come to love.
On the whole, the concert was a success. Everything that needed to happen, happened and happened well. Chad VanGaalen gave a satisfying show and I full intend to see him the next time he comes through. This is a serious artist, and a rewarding listen for any indie fan. Or anyone willing to walk the stranger side of the street for a bit.
Keep listening everybody.