Chad VanGaalen stays busy. Since 2005, he’s released four albums under his own name, as well as the offbeat instrumental Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz as Black Mold -- opiated pop that falls on the more hallucinatory side of the singer-songwriter spectrum. He produced the two albums made by the excellent (and now-defunct) Vancouver group Women, and he’s also an illustrator and animator: Diaper Island features line-art of ominous crustaceans and doomed figures with fungi erupting from their chests. One halfway expects to hear that he’ll next hit the road with Sharon Van Etten and Mark Van Hoen as part of some theoretical-until-now Monsters of Van tour.
Infiniheart from 2005 established the basic template for VanGaalen’s work since: occasionally plaintive melodies anchored in surreal production, with an added jolt provided by the clashes between the two. “Peace on the Rise” marries a subterranean melody and occasional bass-heavy intrusions with an almost chanted vocal melody. And the shift from lamentation to celebration conveyed by “Sara” is echoed by one of the album’s more skeletal arrangements, at times consisting of vocals (sometimes whistled) and acoustic guitar.
The most interesting musical moments of Diaper Island come when VanGaalen embraces his fondness for atmosphere. The lyrics of “Shave My Pussy” can’t help but call attention to themselves, but a closer listen to the music reveals something oddly similar to Loscil’s recent work. The uptempo “Replace Me” finds the guitar-driven melody dodging an echo-chamber vortex that recalls a bizarro-world nod to the 13th Floor Elevators. And “Do Not Fear” opens the album on a deeply contradictory note: VanGaalen’s vocals and drums suggest a modern-rock anthem, while the guitars plunge into a more despairing lower register.
There’s an increased attention to mood and texture here that pays off emotionally. The introspective element of “Peace on the Rise” is only accentuated by a dub-infused interlude in the middle, and the warm strings in “No Panic / No Heat” underscore the more dramatic vocal and dynamic shifts. While Diaper Island doesn’t represent a significant break from VanGaalen’s existing body of work, it ultimately haunts and endures in just the right amount -- making this one of the strongest entries in an already consistent discography.