In The Dark
2012 marks the 10th anniversary of this iconic nocturnal steel and lap guitar-loaded Exotica release called In The Dark by father and son Gary and Geoffrey Brandin, performed under their moniker The Vanduras. The duo garnered a cult following with their rather dark, but all the mellower sound. It isn’t exactly surf music, but neo-Exotica doesn’t describe their particular style either. Let’s just say that the front artwork covers their style excellently: A glistening V formed by two guitars on a pitch-black background points the listener to the right direction of both the mood and style. The longer you look at this supposedly minimal artwork, the more do the necks of the guitars resemble a three-dimensional architectural blueprint of a hallway, subway or an illuminated path. Sure, call me crazy, but I truly believe that this is an album for city-slickers and lonesome strollers who rush with their cars through megacities or the deserts of Nevada. The Brandins approach their exotic topos from an opposite angle; whereas Exotica of most flavors focuses on the jocular side, gregarious luaus and gatherings in tiki temple bars, In The Dark is about the good aspects of short intermezzi of loneliness, freedom and, yes, even about the rare moments of quiescence where one ponders and thinks deeply about their favorite subject, be it beauty, nature or life. 13 coherent tracks are presented on this CD-only release, the majority of them unique compositions and enhanced by the percussive- and drum-related skills of Jeff Donavan, Larry Mitchel and Michael Kramer, with further help on the percussion by Geoffrey Brandin who also happens to inject a bit of mellow quirkiness in the form of keyboards and a pump organ into the album. Without further ado, here’s a description of most tracks which altogether inherit a mellow feeling of darkness that is nonetheless bolstered by gleaming rays of shelter and rivers of dreamy goodness.
In The Dark begins with the track of the same name, and it is so mellifluously gloomy that this is already the first hallmark of the release. Starting off with sunset-evoking guitar backings, the real catchy addition is actually Gary Brandin’s well-known paradisiac sustain of single notes on the lap steel guitar which are immediately answered by Geoffrey’s electronic vibraphone-esque synthesizer settings. It’s utterly gorgeous to listen to these instruments, all the more so as no other Exotica group is able to come up with a dreamy sound like this. Further echoey surf guitars are added, while the reverb of the funky guitar backings creates the illusion of wideness and space; the percussion remains silky, putting the guitar melodies into the limelight. A gigantic opener and one of my favorite tunes ever. Best consumed at night. La Planche is equally mesmerizing by keeping the tempo and lifting off with warped, muffled cymbals that immediately flow into the groove of a lonesome wolf. The main melody is much more worked out on this track, illuminating the vestigial darkness in the form of two steel guitars. One of them truly shines in the chorus that is played in the higher regions, allowing a joyful pompousness to enter. Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars float like spectral entities while the percussion is turned up a notch, making this an even livelier song that never loses its grace. Another huge favorite of mine, regardless of the genre or the artist. The Big Hurt is a relatively short interlude beyond the two minute mark and is actually an interpretation of the 1959 tune of the same name by Wayne Shanklin (1916–1970). It starts dreamily but shortly thereafter has to fend off a hectic but gentle shoegaze rhythm that rushes through the song. The dreamy guitars are a bit dizzy at times, but always lush.
While El Monte slows things down with a fitting downbeat that encloses a majestic glow and warmth of less melodious but sophisticatedly eclectic interwoven golden shimmering steel guitars, The Vanduras’ rendition of Cybele’s Reverie, a 1996 Rock song by Stereolab, begins with an ambient section that is as ecclesial as it is solemn, followed by unexpected acoustic guitar frameworks that, well, frame the melancholic lamento of the occasionally coupled steel guitars, but have to make room for a serene vignette with haunting strings and rustic dark bursts. A successful interpretation that shows the Brandins’ ambitious style, combined with the gleaming iridescence of the guitars, surprising ingredients and catchy riffs. Lost Beach is another one of my favorites and without a doubt the best of the duo’s dreamy songs, merging Hawaiian strings that aren’t the least bit clichéd with clearly audible bongo beats and euphonious duplications of each last note of the respective melody section. Even those Exotica listeners who dislike the glaring use of steel guitars will adore the reverberated strings and the short muffled jungle field recording at the end of the track. Dinner With Robert almost resurrects the Eurodance and stadium hymns with its catchy organ droplets but develops into a fanfarous desperado theme by evoking sunset Steppes with short vocal additions that later turn into haunting entities as the mood further shifts into dark red vistas. Another top notch skit, I don’t even count my favorites anymore.
Sarajevo Rose is another song worth mentioning due to its ode-like setting with a gently played acoustic guitar which is accompanied by a crystalline steel guitar that is later played in a screeching way, intensifying the former quiescent mood that is now quite a bit eerie. The last 40 seconds of the song return into relaxed territories and seem almost as an afterthought. Rope’n Pineapples is a tremendously tropical offering with convoluted bongo drums that lead the way to the most playful song with an upbeat rhythm, polyphonous-jumpy guitars that are further enhanced by glacial steel guitar strings. This is the only song suitable for day time, I think. The Theme For Troubled Teens is a melancholic ditty of tranquility and glitzy beauty in 3/4 time, while the utterly gorgeous Atomic consists of a blurry lift music loop coupled with a steel guitar and leads to the final sumptuous piece called Levitaré which already hints at its airy fluffiness. It starts in an ethereal way with multilayered steel guitar strings that are modulated, warped, blurred, sustained, twisted and washed out in the most mellow way. This is an Ambient track of the finest kind, bundling my favorite genres together in order to create an outerworld-like, cherubic bliss that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. It is as marvelous a closer as the title track In The Dark is an opener.
In The Dark is intensive, lush, and presents the mellow kind of darkness that inspires you rather than scaring you off by crushing your good mood. It is to this day a unique entry in the Exotica genre. The guitar strings are so vivid, powerful, multilayered and liquid that they create a flow that washes the listener away into a dark maelstrom of tropical melodies, melancholic intersections, superb solemnity and steel guitar goodness. Don’t expect overly convoluted or deep percussion because the mellow beats are much reduced and purposefully rudimentary in order to let the guitars shine. Since all the songs are splendidly produced and sound very punchy and vivid, audiophile listeners will be more than pleased with it. After ten years, the album still shines, and while Gary Brandin was involved in so many genre-related projects like The Blue Hawaiians, The Tikiyaki Orchestra, The Hula Girls as well as in less related spaces like the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon, his ear for melodies works tremendously well together with Geoffrey Brandin and his careful use of keyboards and organs which are hardly noticeable but merge so effectively with the steel guitar flow that I have at times problems to tell these instruments apart. The mood, setting and instrumentation are one of a kind, so every Exotica fan needs to own it. In The Dark is sleazy, cool and independent of any short-lived trend or ephemeral opinion. Listeners who don’t like the glistening vibraphones, jazzy double bass backings or Big Band brass ensembles of both vintage and neo-Exotica should really give this album a chance, for it is the nexus between Exotica on the one side and Surf Rock, Rockabilly, Shoegaze and Avantgarde music on the other. Not to be missed, and only available on CD. The nocturnal soul searching may begin.
Exotica Review 069: The Vanduras – In The Dark (2002). Originally published on May 12, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.