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Vundabar - "Smell Smoke" | Album Review


by Allison Kridle

Vundabar’s third album Smell Smoke makes the room feel a little dense. It fosters a type of heaviness that isn’t necessarily difficult to lift, but stagnant in a way that feels hard to move or breathe in. It’s not vocalist and guitarist Brandon Hagen’s rasped voice that conjures this, but perhaps the context in which it flourishes. The album came into fruition after frontman Hagen’s experience taking care of a sick family member. Death serves as a prominent topic on Smell Smoke right next to money and capitalism--subjects get swept under the rug or are talked about in hushed tones. The threesome places them front and center alongside twitchy and gripping melodies and tangy riffs that make it impossible to abandon the thick room. 

The acidic track “Harvest,” presents Hagen’s difficult past of caretaking at a loved ones bed side. He sings, “There’s nothing that’s poetic about a bed sore/Stasis is damage/I cleaned the bowl of fruit I brought/It sat till it turned to food for flies/See how they dine on trials awry,” in unison with a pulsing melody and drums that could pass as a resting heart beat.  

While Smell Smoke may have been the product of dark times, the sound doesn’t always reflect that. Songs like, “Acetone” and “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk,” are some of the most twitchy and sharply composed head bangers. It’s classic Vundabar that would feel just as at home in 2013’s Antics or 2015’s Gawk, but even more jumpy and tart. The first track “Acetone,” rotates between a spinning melody and a daggered and galloping rhythm and “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk,” contains fuzzy and loose riffs that give it a brisk pull. 

The Boston-based band guides listeners even deeper into the smog in the track “Big Funny,” as they talk about the expense of illness and the failing health care system in America. Hagen sings, “Hospital receipts/They make a coffin seem so cheap.” Finance is a major player in the track “$$$,” as Hagen refers to Ben Franklin (or government) a thief, denouncing the corrupt capitalist process. 

The second to last track, “Hold a Light,” is short lived, but adds more weight and understanding to Hagen’s story. Vundabar’s brief transition to deep and rich country is a surprising stunt, but they pull it off. Hagen croons through his soaked lungs, “There's a fire on the road/There's a fire, I've been told/And that flame will never cease/It was fueled by gasoline/You lit it far before I/And that's why it makes me cry/You got to die/But I will burn in your old flame.” The atmosphere may seem blocked by smoke right now, but at least the fire is still burning somewhere.