A notorious homebody, Chad VanGaalen is well known for rarely leaving his basement in Calgary, endlessly drawing, recording, and making art. Fortunately, he has an uncanny knack for creating music that is sweepingly beautiful and undeniably genuine, and with his third full-length Soft Airplane (due September 9), this celebrated multi-talented artist has created his most complete album to date.
With 2005’s Infiniheart and 2006’s Skelliconnection, Chad displayed an innate understanding of simple pop melody and a penchant for intellectually playful arrangements. Compiled from years of hidden back-catalogue and lo-fi CD-R releases, both albums went on to receive critical acclaim from across the globe. While his first albums hinted at musical reference points (that even Chad seemed to be reluctant to embrace), Soft Airplane reveals an artist utterly in stride — confident enough to span genres, while working with a determined and deliberate focus.
Freed somehow from expectations or restrictions, Chad’s musical expression seems both focused and unfettered. While elements might recall Neil Young (On the Beach), touch upon Sonic Youth (Sister), or even evoke the electronic meanderings of Raymond Scott, Soft Airplane manages to soar above musical reference points. The songs trace stories of birth and death, reflecting changes in his life over the two years since Skelliconnection, and cocoon the listener in a distinctive and unique world. Layered with a lush and complex mix of found sounds, vibraphone, corrupted synthesizers and drum machines, accordions, cello, clarinet, guitars and many others, Soft Airplane remains spacious and surges with pop-informed sophistication despite its lo-fi recording origins.
The album opener “Willow Tree” showcases Chad’s seemingly wise and fearless understanding of death amidst sweet banjo rhythms, swells of accordions, and resonating vibraphone; from first listen, the song captures the overwhelmingly compassionate human spirit that defines Soft Airplane. In “Bones of Man” and “Bare Feet on Wet GripTape,” Chad pays tribute to the slack vocal styling of Thurston Moore, while on “Molten Light” or “Rabid Bits of Time” his voice trembles with his distinctive vulnerability. When electronic experimentation comes into play on “Phantom Anthills” and “TMNT Mask,” Chad toys with literate quasi dance-pop songs, but in characteristic irreverence with broken glitches from circuit-bent toys recorded to old tape machines. In fact, “Cries of the Dead” debuts a mechanical drum machine of Chad’s own design, a handmade robotic device that strikes out an awkwardly fallible and surprisingly human rhythm.
As Soft Airplane closes, Chad allows the fragile, ascending, “Rabid Bits of Time” to greet the thunderous synth spasms of “Frozen Energon” through the stereo field-recordings of a passing freight train, and a psychedelic nightmare suited to cartoonist Jim Woodring brings the album to a shuddering halt. Sometimes the most powerful of musical expressions come from the most hushed and unassuming sources; with Soft Airplane, Chad VanGaalen has created one of these rare, heartfelt and gripping moments from the depths of his cluttered basement. Fortunately for him — and us.