CALGARY-BASED ARTIST Chad VanGaalen doesn't just cross disciplines—he crosses dimensions. VanGaalen records prolifically and alone. Depending on which song you're listening to, he can be categorized as acoustic singer/songwriter, dirty college rock, cellar-born lo-fi, harsh electronic noise, science-fiction techno, or, most accurately, "other." His songs deal with metaphysics and bodily functions, often at the same time. He's more than an iconoclast—he's one of the 21st century's most creative and rewarding artists. If that sounds highfalutin, I should add that he's one of the weirdest, too.
VanGaalen's visual art is creepy and immediate, like a cross between Arthur Rackham and R. Crumb. It can be found on the covers of his albums and in his elaborate videos, which he animates entirely by himself. Indeed, the sheer time spent on his work is indication that VanGaalen operates on a plane not often visited by ordinary humans; his current press biography (written by the Constantines' Bryan Webb) says he's put out "several hundred releases," although evidence of many of them is difficult to find. VanGaalen's recorded under a breadth of aliases—including the two bands he's formed with his kids, a techno outfit called Banana Bread and a punk duo named Crocodile Teeth and the Snugglers—and has put out more than a dozen tapes on his Yoko Eno cassette label.
The five "conventional" albums he's released on Canadian imprint Flemish Eye, however—which have been issued in the States by Sub Pop—are perhaps where most of us have been able to discover and appreciate VanGaalen. Each one, including this year's lilting, pedal-steel-strewn Shrink Dust, is excellent, containing more than a few masterstrokes apiece. VanGaalen rarely tours in the US, and his live show can be a ramshackle affair, with his home-built, headstock-less guitar often veering out of tune midway through the song. But that's part and parcel of the work of one of the most original and inventive musicians around. Here are some of his best, strangest moments. (To dig deeper, check out the essential, 26-song playlist, "Chad VanGaalen: A Beginner's Guide," that Sub Pop has posted to Spotify, Rdio, and Beats.)
"Dead Ends," Skelliconnection, 2006
With a Pixies-like opening guitar riff, a chuffing Neil Young harmonica, and VanGaalen's voice plotted squarely in Thom Yorke zone, "Dead Ends" is as good an entry point to VanGaalen's oeuvre as any. It's daringly close to a conventional indie-rock song, although its chorus soars into operatic splendor. This is no too-cool-for-school slacker jam.
"Willow Tree," Soft Airplane, 2008
The opening track of what's perhaps VanGaalen's most consistent album, "Willow Tree" is a tender lullaby that sounds like a traditional folk song passed down from generations. With banjo, harmonium, clarinet, vibraphone, and brushed snare, he taps out a two-step with authenticity and confidence—that damaged falsetto notwithstanding. Of course, the song's lyrical preoccupation with how to dispose of the singer's earthly remains after he's dead lends an air of murder-ballad spookiness.
KEXP session, kexp.org, 2014
VanGaalen stopped by Seattle's KEXP studio in April and performed busk-band arrangements of four songs from Shrink Dust all by himself, beating out drumbeats with his feet and strumming in an indecipherable guitar tuning as twinkling pixie synth-dust emitted from a small electronic box at his side. It's an invaluable close-up of a performer whose homespun technique is devised from necessity, not from any sense of showmanship—a glimpse behind the wizard's curtain that's more impressive than the show up front.
Women: "Eyesore," Public Strain, 2010
VanGaalen produced both of Calgary band Women's albums, the first reportedly with his custom setup of boomboxes and old-school tape machines. The closing track of their second album, the lovely "Eyesore," sounds like a demo for a Pet Sounds masterpiece that never made it past Brian Wilson's sandbox. It's a breathtaking elegy for a band whose acrimonious exit was marred by tragedy. In 2012, guitarist Christopher Reimer died in his sleep after embarking on a solo recording at VanGaalen's behest, songs from which were eventually released as The Chad Tape.
Video, "Molten Light," Soft Airplane, 2008
Animated entirely by VanGaalen himself, the video for "Molten Light" is an unnerving, stream-of-consciousness horror story that loosely follows the song's narrative about a murdered woman getting revenge on her killers. VanGaalen's cartoon takes place in a world that has huge inanimate faces covering the landscape, and features a melting priest and the murdered woman's corpse coming back to life as an enormous, many-eyed monster. It's indefinable, although the closest comparison might be Seattle cartoonist Jim Woodring's intricately detailed hallucinations set to haunting motion.
Black Mold: "Smoking Rat Shit," Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz, 2009
Recorded under the Black Mold alter ego, Snow Blindness is a defiantly odd sketchpad of bitsynths, modern classical, and minimalist noise. The opener, "Metal Spider Webs," proves VanGaalen could make a fortune scoring independent films if he wished to rein in his exploratory tendencies. "Smoking Rat Shit" is a nearly danceable trip down the digital rabbit hole into a Nintendo underworld of truly psychedelic mushrooms.
"After the Afterlife," Infiniheart, 2004
A lazy, cooing folk song whose heavy strums on the downbeat initially evoke Harvest-era Neil Young, but has more in common with Young's 1977 weirdo fireside epic "Will to Love" as it takes a left turn into dream imagery. "You are not awake/you're still asleep with the seaweed kelp," VanGaalen sings, as an almost unbearably beautiful dulcimer-sounding instrument keens like a selkie. This is how sailors get lost at sea.