Alright, let’s first admit that you’re not going to see a discussion of Neon Indian without seeing the word “chillwave,” so let’s get this out of the way. For those that don’t know, “chillwave” is a loosely-defined and ridiculously named electronic music subgenre marked by looped samples and heavy distortion, often evocative of the 1980s. The artists most frequently bestowed with this label are Toro Y Moi, Washed Out, and Neon Indian, although all three have arguably evolved beyond this sound. Toro Y Moi moved into R&B and more recently psychedelic rock, while Washed Out moved into synthpop and dream pop. But what about Neon Indian?
Neon Indian’s 2009 debut Psychic Chasms was arguably peak chillwave. Filled with blurry, looping samples that bring 80s nostalgia and hazy summers of decades past to mind, the term “chillwave” almost seems like it was invented to describe the album’s sound. Only the man behind Neon Indian, Alan Palomo, is kind of ambivalent about the term; on one hand he has no idea what it means and (probably correctly) assumes it a label made up by bloggers to a describe a handful of musicians, while on the other hand he appreciates other acts also labeled “chillwave” and deems it just another way fans can discover similar bands. Potentially tired of being shoehorned into the chillwave niche or maybe just sick of hearing the word “chillwave,” Palomo’s 2011 follow-up Era Extraña moved away from the bleariness of his debut and added a layer of refinement to his sound. There were still samples galore, often retro-influenced (including old video games), but the songs had stronger melodies under their waves of clashing synthesizer lines and the entire album had a coherent break-up theme. It was a little more synthpop and even shoegaze at times (at least on “Hex Girlfriend”), and if nothing else the six-note tune of “Polish Girl” would get stuck in your head for weeks on end.
Four years later, with the basic chillwave formula left in the past by both Palomo and the other subgenre stalwarts, a further move from Neon Indian’s debut style seemed inevitable. VEGA INTL. Night School moves Neon Indian into the electro-funk stylings you might expect from a group like Chromeo and is easily his most danceable release yet. The layers upon layers of synthesizer are still there, only now they’re boosted up by groovy basslines and pulsating beats instead of retro samples. This doesn’t mean the 80s influence is gone entirely – it’s just back with more glam, house, and funk.
Despite the disparate influences, VEGA INTL. Night School might be the most cohesive album Palomo has released, an attribute that really strengthens it. This isn’t to say that his previous releases were inconsistent, but VEGA INTL. Night School is definitely best enjoyed as a sequential album rather than taking the tracks one at a time. The tracks all flow together amazingly, typically joined by a beat that changes tempo without ever letting up. Opener “Hit Parade” builds up the album’s energy in a minute’s time so you’re ready for the reggae-influenced “Annie,” and instrumental interlude “Bozo” is a great segue into “The Glitzy Hive.” The track linking culminates in album climax “Slumlord” and the subsequent “Slumlord’s Re-lease,” which together form one extended song. The following track “Techno Clique” also keeps the same beat going, and feels like it could be a third part to this medley. Only the relatively slow “Baby’s Eyes” creates a slight bump in the continuity of an album that is an otherwise 14-track dance party.
Aside from these stylistic changes, the most noticeable difference between VEGA INTL. Night School and its predecessors is Palomo’s voice. On Psychic Chasms, Palomo sung in a deadpan tone that tended to be muffled under the layers of distorted synth melodies and samples. This was largely the case again on Era Extraña, although with a few additional moments where his voice was given more prominence to deliver its more earnest lyrics. Now, while it would be a stretch to say that Palomo’s voice has been given center-stage as the synthesizers still dominate and the majority of the lyrics are still incomprehensible, VEGA INTL. Night School gives Palomo a chance to show off his vocal range. Now, he sings in a falsetto just as often as his deadpan tone, occasionally echoing Michael Jackson or Prince (especially on album closer “News From the Sun (Live Bootleg)”). This adds a sexualized dimension to the record, and it surprisingly isn’t overdone. After all, it’s about what you’d expect from an aptly-named nightlife-themed album.
VEGA INTL. Night School may seem a little overwhelming at first listen, given the constant energy and how the layers of synthesizer can sometimes blend together or overpower a track (especially on “Street Level”). However, on repeat listens it quickly becomes clear that it’s a very nuanced album with each song having its own distinguishing attributes. The album as a whole does more than enough to differentiate itself as an advancement for Neon Indian’s sound and finds its own niche after the decline of pure chillwave as Washed Out and Toro Y Moi have done. Becoming the one known for making a funk-influenced dance album might make him seem simplistic, but VEGA INTL. Night School shows Palomo is still full of new ideas that he is capable of executing in a way where nothing feels out of the ordinary or too big a leap.