Album Review: Neon Indian - VEGA INTL. Night School

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Change of coast, change of heart”. Last time we heard from Neon Indian, he was changing time zones on the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack. Turns out, now two years later, he wasn’t kidding. The only thing I can think of to make Alan Palomo’s bizzare, eclectic electronic productions any more mind-bending is adding the backdrop of Los Angeles to the mix. And with his first full length offering in four years, that is exactly what we get. LA is the scene, and Alan’s own lessons from the VEGA INTL. Night School are the beat. It’s a concept record that challenges the listener to think bigger and darker at every single turn, and it’s the most descriptive, expository Neon Indian record we’ve received to date. This is night school that you will want to attend night after night for months.

Night School can be divided pretty evenly into four acts. By the time you reach the end of the record, the main character Alan presents has been through the ringer. It does this over the course of 14 tracks and 52 minutes, which compared to Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña feels like a marathon for a Neon Indian record. And truly, your first listen of Night School will be a bit of an endurance test. If there was only one word for the chaotic catharsis Alan has given us here, it would be: dense. Very dense. The album’s two single offerings, “Annie” and “Slumlord” play it safe by teasing us with the most accessible material of the bunch. But as soon as “Annie” ends and “Street Level” begins, Alan turns the fog machines and strobes up to punishing levels. Far from the trippy post-punk leanings of Era or even the clean pop presentation of its single “Polish Girl”, Night School returns to the many “waves” of Psychic Chasms and adds another dozen or so levels of maximalist perfectionism, all now soaked in top notch LA smut.

More than ever before, Night School finds Neon Indian bridging the gap between his high-minded sonic concepts and a focused thematic center. As Alan has described the record, Night School is an exploration of LA’s night life, a place where you often find yourself learning your own darkest secrets. Act 1’s exposition gives us a batch of characters, all with a motivation for how they got to LA and what trouble they are all getting themselves in now. Frankie heard from a friend that Annie was in a dirty movie. Later, after much ado about horoscopes and slumlords, Frankie ends up with a gun. It’s very pulpy stuff, much of which is up to your own interpretation. But the imagery that Alan presents here, both musically and lyrically, couldn’t be more focused. It’s fun to see a Neon Indian record present some of the most eclectic, brain-bending stuff you’ll hear out there, all with a plot that you can track from beginning to end.

After the psych freak-out interlude of “Bozo”, Act 2 gives us the conflict on “The Glitzy Hive” and “Dear Scorpio Magazine”. The glimmer of the neon lights and the endless party that is living in the big city somehow feel underwhelming. What is left after all of the booze-soaked dancing fades into the night? Is there any real human connection? Alan’s character is in love with a girl, but he has no ability to connect with her. He’d rather depend on the horoscopes, letting fade lie with some other source. It’s not easy to take the pressure onto yourself. “Slumlord” kicks off selection of subsequent dance bangers that all make up Act 3. Here, the disconnection and the promise of success both lead to a heft amount of adverse incentive. Greed and possession take the place of desire for intimacy. Both “Slumlord” and it’s instrumental follow up play out like an 80s video game soundtrack. It’s wonderful stuff. On “Techno Clique”, Alan opts for subculture and disassociation. “It’ll happy in the room tonight, no sentiment to speak of, no names to remember, just you and I.” Then, it all comes to a climax on “Baby’s Eyes”, which remembers the thrills of love and romance in a dire situation.

Act 4 wraps up the record with an odd but purposeful anticlimax. “C’est la vie!” descends into madness. Staying up all night has led to confusion and irrationality, and now there’s nothing left of the desire any of us said we had. But “61 Cigni Ave” revisits “Annie” slightly to remind us that there’s always another party coming down the pike. There’s more distraction to be had where you want it. But then, finishing out the thought, “News From The Sun”, ironically labeled a live bootleg, tells us all to go to bed and think about it in the morning. The track would be an 80s arena anthem if not for the bizarre chromatic scaling of the chorus, which descends into vapor-wave territory in its pop degradation. But the disintegration is purposeful. “Tangled up in the arms of the night, but just wait for the light, and hear the news from the sun… we’re all just waiting for something.” There’s so much distraction and so much noise that we don’t want to make commitments to each other or ourselves. The lessons we learn at VEGA INTL. Night School aren’t always fun.

Maybe the most incredible bit of musical magic surrounding Night School is its flawless reconciliation of every genre Alan has ever touched. While both chill-wave and vapor-wave have fleeted into the corners, the sonic themes explored in both of these subgenres are given serious thematic girth on this record. Alan’s endless filtering and re-filtering and repurposing all feels poignant. The characters on Night School are constantly recycling their ideas, their intimacy, and their identity. Take “The Glitzy Hive” for example, where the easy to sing along, party-centric chorus is repeated to a point of self-awareness. The filters seem to multiply with every rotation, like we are continuing to hit rewind and repeat on a tape player of our favorite feelings. It’s like a pop pastiche constructed with the ideas of The Disintegration Loops. Throughout the record, the characters constantly strive to find feelings once lost, tangled in the arms of the night, going from party to party repeating the same mistakes hoping for different results. Musically, Alan couldn’t have picked a more appropriate vein for the soundtrack to his thesis.

Night School isn’t an easy record. It’s a pop record, but it’s not a record that cashes in on the sound he has carved out for any sort of easy pop gains. Rather, it’s meta-pop, pop that has become aware of its own fleeting glory and dying sense of purpose. In this, Neon Indian has done what no other producer in his specific lane has yet accomplished. The wait was worth it. Neon Indian is back and better than we’ve ever seen him before.

VEGA INTL. Night School drops this week on Mom + Pop. Go grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Alan will tour extensively in support of the new record. Check dates here, and check out our review of his show at the Neptune last month here.

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