You don’t tend to hear much about chillwave these days, but two or three years ago, it was very much the cooler than thou genre of the moment. Heavily indebted to the music of the 1980s, its electronic soundscapes – sometimes dreamy, sometimes funky – and ethereal vocals were typically the work of one man in his bedroom on his laptop. Mostly young Americans based in unlikely outposts like Georgia and South Carolina, they adopted suitably enigmatic names such as Washed Out and Youth Lagoon, sat back and lapped up the surge of acclaim from critics across the board. Then the hipsters moved on to something else and the movement seemed to subside as quickly as it emerged.
One performer who probably isn’t that perturbed by all of this is Neon Indian, aka Mexican-born, Texas based Alan Palomo. Back in 2013, he claimed any journalist or blogger “can find three or four random bands around the country and tie together a few commonalities between them and call it a genre”. Nevertheless, his 2011 album Era Extraña is very much considered one of the defining chillwave records, with standout tracks like Polish Girl boasting a winning combination irresistibly catchy synthesiser riffs and memorable melodies.
Four years later, Palomo is out to prove that while chillwave may be frozen in time, its main practitioners are still very much moving forward. His new album’s title, VEGA INTL. Night School, is a deliberate nod to the more dance-oriented approach of his earlier recording moniker, VEGA, and it signals a clear shift from the woozier atmospherics of Era Extraña to full on party mode.
VEGA INTL. Night School is still steeped in the sounds of the 1980s, but funkier and brasher than Neon Indian has ever been before. Many of the tracks were recorded on board a cruise ship (where Palomo’s brother was working as part of the house band) and the album as a whole feels more like a live DJ set on a club dance floor than a meticulously produced studio creation. Its exuberance, fluidity and restless mix and match creativity often bring to mind the classic, entirely sampled Avalanches album Since I Left You, with songs merging into one another seamlessly. Chill wave it certainly ain’t.
We got a sense of what to come with August’s advance single Slumlord, which flirted with Kraftwerk-like retro ambience for its first minute or so before going through the gears and transforming into a squelching, pulsating electro beast, with Palomo’s high, disco-influenced vocals surging in and out of the mix. It’s one of the best tracks here, along with the Balearic-influenced, irresistibly bouncy Annie and the sprawling, six minutes plus epic Baby’s Eyes.
Occasionally, VEGA INTL. Night School is so utterly immersed in the decade that inspired it that we hear ghosts of records from the original period in our heads – Men At Work’s Down Under on 61 Cygni Avenue for example, or New Order’s Thieves Like Us in the opener Hit Parade. But if anything this is a tribute to the impressive authenticity of Neon Indian’s chosen sonic canvas.
Palomo lost two years’ worth of demos for the album originally intended to follow Era Extraña when his laptop was stolen, meaning he had to start again from scratch. This break in continuity seems to have aided rather than hindered Neon Indian’s artistic development. Those seeking the mellower vibes of his earlier work may be slightly less enamoured with VEGA INTL. Night School, it’s undeniably a record that’s confident, intelligent and above all, fun.