On the lead track for Vundabar’s new album, “Devil for the Fire” (released April 15), frontman Brandon Hagen’s screams sound frenetic, like someone asking for help from inside a cave. “I can’t see the devil for the fire/Sit in the back so calm and polite,” he sings in a tense voice over the composition of Boston’s most menacing trio to date. The album’s title, a play on the old adage “I can’t see the forest for the trees,” lays the surreal foundation for the nine-track LP; “There’s no longer a reference to what’s going on, it’s like you’re lost in sauce,” Hagen tells me about the album’s concept. “That’s what I wanted to call the record: It got lost in the sauce,” he said, cracking from inside his car at a break in Connecticut.
Since Vundabar hit the scene in 2013 with their debut “Antics,” Hagen, along with longtime friend and drummer Drew McDonald and bassist Zack Abramo, has created an undulating series of albums that push the boundaries of both noise and pop. Where pessimistic Antics and carefully molded “Smell Smoke” (2017) characterize the outer parameters, “Devil for the Fire” blends subtlety with instinct in their most compelling work yet, drawing on the energy of a fast-recording session with attention to melody.
“I was writing a bunch of songs and saying, ‘This isn’t a Vundabar song,'” Hagen notes of the writing process. ‘And then there were some songs that I thought, ‘Maybe that’s possible.’ We’ve all evolved musically to where we don’t just have to play songs quick punk”.
Al Habsa opened this idea with an unhurried but sentimental hook. “And now we’re driving in a stranger’s car / But all the landscape is blurred and jumbled,” Hagen paints, recalling surreal images, his voice equal to the parts of “Turn On the Bright Lights”—Interpol and young Peter Hook. He told me about his interest in neuroplasticity, a hobby taken from textbooks he found while living with a few psychology students, and about his interests in film noir. Both themes are explored in allegories told in the lyrics, a handful of which refer to cars on endless roads, an abstract way of neural pathways and vanishing reference points. “I ran around these old highways,” he sings to the indie song “Lore,” a song that sounds like it was made on purpose for Alston’s basements.
But “aphasia” has a more personal meaning for Hagen. He continues, “I love this concept because I find it very optimistic, but then my dad had a stroke, and everything that was conceptual on the record became too literal.” The song’s title borrows its name from Hagen’s father’s diagnosis, a condition that affects the brain’s communication center, often forcing patients to relearn and retrain their ability to speak and write language.
Although Hagen’s experience was traumatic, he found solace in his father’s recovery: “There is something very reassuring about seeing someone having to start over and do it safely and it’s very reassuring.”
His father’s stroke could not have come at a more difficult time as COVID-19 spread across the United States in early summer 2020. Hagen described a regular day of recording “Devil for the Fire” as: “Get a COVID test; Wait in line at the hospital to get a COVID test; go to the studio; record; get a COVID test; go back to the hospital.” Such an insane routine is something many of us can identify with, but Hagen’s tension is a tangible asset on record. Songs like the aforementioned title track and urgent “The Gloam” are effortlessly tense, like Hagen reaching from the edge of his vocal cords to forever free the words from his vocabulary.
Elsewhere, Vundabar enjoys a vast expanse of quiet canyons and sparse arrangements, a sound akin to “Gawk,” the fan-favorite 2015 sophomore release. The lively, youthful “Nosferatu” and “Listless Blue” stroll with some tweens found in the best Galaxie 500 releases. The “chiming bell” is perhaps best setting the mold for what makes a great Vundabar song: a grounded, groove-centric rhythm section, chirpy, And rock riffs in the garage, and Hagen full of falsetto frequencies that indicate vocals.
Hagen describes the recording of “Devil for the Fire,” the album taking only eight days to track down: “A lot of it had to do with the energy, the acquisition energy, and the excitement behind the song.” When we finished recording, we said, ‘That’s what I felt like recording ‘Gawk’ – just, Fast. “
But what separates its most popular release from the new edition is the complete immersion of its concept. Hagen’s surreal imagery and clever metaphors are a perfect pairing of music that oscillates between breezy and caustic. There is an instinctive self-assertion on this album delivered without fanfare or saturated productions which perhaps best represents the essence of what Vundabar is.
“I think when it comes to finishing projects, you just have to ride the excitement, because if you lose it, it can become important,” Hagen says. And Devil for the Fire is clearly a journey of sorts, a dreamy journey through endless paths into the depths of the mind.