[9 November 2009]
Full disclosure, right off the bat. I’ve never heard any of Chad VanGaalen’s music in his day job as a singer/songwriter. But I really enjoyed Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz, the first album released under his electronic music alter ego, Black Mold. The press materials for the album tout its marriage of electronic sounds and acoustic instruments, and also makes a big deal about how it uses a lot of “glitches and noise.” Both of those elements are present, but neither dominates the album. What really begins to stand out about Black Mold after a few listens is the strong melodies embedded in these songs. VanGaalen brings his songwriter’s sensibilities to Black Mold, which makes the album accessible even as it’s experimental.
The album begins with “Metal Spider Webs”, a laid-back groove featuring bowed cello, plucked string bass, glockenspiel, and clarinet. It’s enough to make one wonder if they’re listening to the right album, until synth sounds creep in after about a minute. Still, the electronics are largely in the background in this opening track. Second track “Dr. Snouth”, though, lives up to the “glitches and noise” billing. It’s 70 seconds worth of nearly random electronic sounds, mostly serving as an awkward transition between the opener and third song, “Uke Puke”. As the title implies, this track features a ukulele in the spotlight, playing a repeating melodic figure as programmed drums, a synth bassline, and the sounds of coins clinking fade in and out in the background. After this, though, VanGaalen largely abandons any pretense of using acoustic instruments. A clarinet shows up again in “Barn Swallow vs. SK-1”, but that’s about it.
A lot of these tracks would be pretty out there if it wasn’t for the melodies. A song like “Tetra Pack Heads” is filled with oddball digital percussion sounds, but also features warm, though stuttering, chords, as well as a xylophone-like melody which is later joined by a vibraphone-style counter-melody. “Rotten Walls” uses a mess of Gameboy sounds but still has an identifiable hook at its core. “No Dream Nation” is appropriately floaty, moving along on a high-pitched synth melody that fades in and out and a well-placed, soft crash cymbal sound at certain points. “Pristine Boobles” uses sounds from Pac-Man (yes, the original video game), to augment its wind chime-like melodic hook.
But with a robust 19 tracks, not everything on Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz is a winner. “Fuck Ebay” is a mess of glitchy sounds, and it plows right into “Wet Ferns”, which has a decent melody, but isn’t strong enough to justify its nearly six-minute running time. Similarly, the title track is appropriately delicate-sounding, but it goes on for five minutes, and has worn out its welcome after about three. “Smoking Rat Shit” is a difficult piece of work that’s hard to listen to, so I guess it was well-named. Its saving grace is that it only lasts for two minutes.
The real highlights of Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz come at the end. Track 17, “Left Behind by the Digital Ships”, slides in after the title track wraps up, all warm, melancholy synth sounds. It sounds almost like an organ hymn, and the evocative title conjures all sorts of cool mental images. Following that, “Swimming to Food” utilizes an oscillating, watery sound in its spare, tense melody. Underneath that is a nonstop glitchy beat overlaid with soft, but menacing, bass. The final song, “Finally Someone Invented a Teleporter!” doesn’t quite live up to its great title, but it is a strong 90 seconds of synth melody and busy background noises that wraps up the album nicely. Black Mold would probably sound like a more typical, laptop-based electronic project if it weren’t for the strong melodies. These melodies allow VanGaalen to get out of his head at least a little bit and create tracks that sound like songs instead of musical experiments.