The chillwave craze of 2009 was synonymous with lo-fi production values, as summery synth-pop mood pieces were doused in bleary reverb and warped keyboard textures. Despite Neon Indian’s initial association with that homemade movement, project leader Alan Palomo has since emerged as a high-end synthesizer aficionado: he teamed up with Bleep Labs to design a custom mini-synth in 2011, made a demo video for Moog, and he even became buddies with instrument designer Dave Smith.
Palomo’s electronic expertise is the primary focus of his third full-length, VEGA INTL. Night School, which is a vivid collage of kaleidoscopic sounds and wild, wonky textures. The tone is established by opening track “Hit Parade,” a brief instrumental overture that momentarily recalls the hazy grooves of Neon Indian’s chillwave days. Thanks to his new production style, however, there’s nothing remotely “chill” about it, as the track turns into a hyperactive collage of splishy-splashy bloops and spaceship laser effects, with a riff nabbed right out of MGMT’s “Electric Feel.”
This minute-long instrumental distills much of what is both enjoyable and frustrating about VEGA INTL. Night School. Although the album is filled with catchy hooks and inventive trippiness, the arrangements are frequently overstuffed and unfocused, and the good moments get lost amidst the bloated messiness. Upbeat dance-pop albums are supposed to be fun, but these 14 tracks are exhausting to get through. The fact that that Palomo frequently plays it fast and loose with genre — see the funk-reggae crossover “Annie” or the ghastly funhouse finale of “C’est La Vie (say the casualties!)” — worsens the sense of sonic clutter.
VEGA INTL. Night School has a few dazzling highlights. In particular, “Slumlord” (and its instrumental coda track “Slumlord’s Re-lease”) has a darkly hypnotic riff that sounds like it could have been lifted from an Italo disco banger, while the falsetto-filled funk-soul of “The Glitzy Hive” is a party anthem in the making and has by far the best chorus here. Closer “News from the Sun (live bootleg)” is an infectious, Prince-style jam despite its unnecessary canned crowd samples.
Perhaps, if Palomo had tamed his inner synth junkie and trimmed off the excess fat, the rest of the album could have been similarly successful. As it is, VEGA INTL. Night School sounds like the work of an artist with more enthusiasm than restraint.