Alan Palomo, the man behind Neon Indian, struck chillwave gold with his first two albums, Psychic Chasms and Era Extrana. Unfortunately, these classics are now juxtaposed to the erratic, disjointed sounds and cochlear trauma exacted by his latest release, Vega Intl. Night School. Neon Indian fans are in for a shock when they plow through the eagerly anticipated new album searching in vain for a vestige of what they once knew as Neon Indian, only to realize that this musical desert has substituted gimmicky beats and sound effects for the recognizable chilled electro from which Neon Indian grew popular from.
Neon Indian was the indie darling of 2009. They exploded on the pop-electro scene after songs off Psychic Chasms, like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Should Have Taken Acid With You”, found immediate popularity on social media, the blogosphere, and eventually mainstream radio. The band became a pillar of the chillwave sound that was peaking in popularity at the time, and their humorous lyrics and laissez-faire sound mixing was endearing more than it was detracting. While many criticized the quality of their sophomore album, Era Extrana, others found it held up well and established a rabid affinity for tracks like “Polish Girl” and “Hex Girlfriend”, which played on repeat.
What happened to the music after Era Extrana is unclear, but Vega Intl Night School is undoubtedly a drastic shift in Neon Indian’s sound, aesthetic, and ethos even. The lackadaisical, shimmering synths with sun-drenched beats of the past have been warped into nonsensical, balearic garbage. The carefree vagabond aura of someone who didn’t expect to ‘make it’ now sounds like a manufactured, hyper-attentive tribute to themselves. Neon Indian’s music still feels druggy, but instead of a mellow pot or acid psychedelic influence, the erratic and grating effects of meth or bath salts might be more appropriate.
There are 14 songs on the album and, regrettably, only two, “Annie” and “Slumlord”, are marginally listenable. Even these two might have just made good filler on any previous Neon Indian album. There are moments of hope where a certain hook emerges amidst the disjointed noise and you latch on with the hope that Neon Indian’s previous brilliance might emerge, but alas it never does.
The album begins with “Annie” which has a generic tropicalia vibe that would do well playing in the background of a Billabong or Pac Sun clothing store, but after hearing what follows, you might as well consider it the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the album.
Tracks like “Street Level”, “Smut”, and “Bozo” are heavily layered in abstruse and arbitrary noise that one can hardly discern any structure to them. With bleeps and bloops and random sound bytes, you would find a better chorus in an avant-garde, experimental college radio band.
“Slumlord” proves to be an oasis and it’s the first song where Palomo doesn’t throw the whole kitchen sink of sound effects at you within the first ten seconds. This song has an appealing synth build to it and it’s not hard to see why it was selected as a single, although it could also be lack of options.
Songs like “Glitsy”, “Dear Skorpio Magazine”, and “Techno Clique” have a heavy retro sound that would be more appropriate in a cheesy 80s sitcom. Palomo takes a shot at some grandiose vocals but it’s too hard to take him seriously when a carnival of clownish and whacky sounds proliferate in the background.
There is no wink at the end of the album, the tracks are similarly terrible all the way through. While you can respect any artist who ventures outside of what is expected of them, this is an album that is almost comical in how unlistenable it is. Vega Intl. Night School might be a nod towards EDM culture with its impetuous sampling and cacophonous overtones, but at least EDM has an expectant drop to look forward too. Much of this album sounds like Musical Youth on bath salts, and as a Neon Indian fan, it is easier for me to just excise this album from my memory and hope that it is just a growing pain, a necessary evil, for Neon Indian to continue testing their boundaries before they find themselves again.