In lieu of sitting down to write this article, I was tempted to shirk my responsibilities the weekend of my deadline, and travel to a psychic fair in rural Indiana. At Camp Chesterfield, I was promised spiritual cleansing via fire messages, tarot reading, clairvoyant séance, and runes. It’s something I needed—a soul wash, a distraction from the realities of the day. But surprisingly, staying home, transcribing an hour-long interview with Van Dale, and re-listening to their fantastic sophomore album Of The Valley II, had possibly the same meditative effect. The record is better ingested en masse, it’s a metaphorical place to get lost in, or as the song “Vacationhead” urges, to “erase your head.” You need to hear this, hyperbole be damned.
It was exactly four years ago this month when I first crossed paths with Van Dale. Even then, with just a debut album in tow, the trio was making a case for sonic authority in Columbus—no amount of Weezer cover bands could extinguish them. They had an enthusiasm that exuded thrift punk, but balanced any kind of complex attitudes with buoyant fuzz rock and somewhat nonsensical lyrics. Things were much simpler in 2013. The long gestation that has led to the 2017 version of Van Dale was fraught with lineup changes (Travis Hall left and was replaced by guitarist Lisa Brokaw), manic melancholy, and deep, dark thoughts. If Van Dale’s debut was—quite literally—translated as “of the valley,” this is the sequel starring a wiser, evolved, if not defeated, band.
“The idea of the ‘valley’ was a multifaceted tool throughout the record,” says Van Dale’s visionary Joe Camerlengo. “It followed the period of time it took to make the record—everything that was going on in our lives, and everything that encompassed our band. And at the end, we finally came out of the ‘valley.’”
“I don’t want this to come off as pretentious, but the concept of the ‘valley’ is something we used as creative inspiration, but it’s a very real state of mind and a very real existence,” drummer Tim Horak further explains. “It’s a perpetual state of depression, self-destruction, and isolation. It’s about being trapped in a cycle. It’s about waking up and coming to terms with your life, and hopefully getting out of that.”
That “valley” is defined, figuratively, as “any place, period, or situation that is filled with fear, gloom, and foreboding,” it’s hard to imagine the apocryphal musings of Camerlengo coming from anything other than a very positive and whimsical place. He’s the human embodiment of a Pikachu, with a constant surge of electricity passing through him and onto anyone within arm’s length. His passion to connect with the perfect pop song is seen in pretty much anything the kid does—whether it’s the ecstatic, quasi-ritualistic writhing he does when he performs, or the layers and layers of melody he’s piled onto the new record. The band has found a recording guru in producer Shane Natalie, but even more so in the mix and mastering of Columbus expatriate Adam Smith.
Their hands have pushed Camerlengo’s rainbow and bath salt phantasms into mammoth walls of sound.
There’s little downtime when it comes to the “Tuesday Nurse.” Camerlengo works long graveyard shifts at a local hospital in order maintain a rock star lifestyle—and if there is, it’s usually spent toiling in some other musical capacity. He’s grafted his name and persona to the Blanket Boys (which is crafted by his “heart”), Brat Curse (a thrift-punk celebration for which he has “no responsibilities”), Classical Baby (his solo endeavor that is scraped from the “inside of his skull”), and spent countless hours playing with
Counterfeit Madison and Mary Lynn (who are both “blessed”). That scale of local benevolence is much more than idle hands and a scattering of his talents—it’s a sacred rite for Camerlengo.
“There was an adult pivot in my life the day I turned 30,” says Camerlengo about his juggling act. “I never worked at a grocery store in my 30s and never worked as a nurse in my 20s. I’m pretty fortunate that the decision to take a career doesn’t really impact what I want to do in this band.”
And where he wants to go with Van Dale, as it was in 2013, has already been set in motion. The scope of The Visitor, the proposed title of album three inspired by Horak’s very real sleep paralysis, is even grander and more prophetic in mixing the perceptions of how we participate in our own lives.
“Being numb to reality,” says Camerlengo, “that’s the Van Dale vibe. You have to make or create your own reality to live within. I don’t want you to sit and cry with this record, or the next one. I want you to wake up and find the light.”
Are we visitors? Or are we present, here—feeling visceral wounding and healing through music? Van Dale hopes it’s the former.