Album Review: Vundabar, “Smell Smoke”

By Joseph Perry (@JosephWPerryJWP)

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Boston-based rock band Vundabar has been described by fans and music critics as everything from revivalists of 1980s new wave to keepers of the 1960s surf rock flame, to post-punk power pop artists. This enviable inability to be pigeonholed is one of the group’s strong points, as they create infectious, energy-filled guitar rock with insightful lyrics. On Vundabar’s third release Smell Smoke (Gawk Records), the band tackles the trials and tribulations of mental and physical decline head on, and in doing so delivers a poignant longplayer that is the group’s most impressive effort yet.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Branden Hagen has discussed in recent interviews how he had been the long-time caretaker for an ailing family member behind the scenes, while being the outgoing frontman for Vundabar. Smell Smoke examines the myriad issues involved with his journey, from the struggle between putting forward a spirited public front while secretly dealing with stages of grief in “Acetone” to the existential malaise of “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk.

The music at times almost disguises the heavy and heady lyrical themes explored on Smell Smoke with sometimes rambunctious, rollicking, joyful sonic spaces. Hagen’s guitar work feels a little more up front than on past releases, and fans of jangling, fuzzed-up axe work will find plenty to enjoy here. It wouldn’t be a Vundabar album without some experimentation, and songs such as “No Person to People” fit the bill more than aptly. Drummer Drew McDonald shines as well, with “Harvest” and “No Person to People” being fine examples.

Smell Smoke is a gorgeous exploration of grief and self-exploration with an artistic rock and roll bent. Vundabar should find plenty of new fans once this album gets the exposure that it so greatly deserves.

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Vundabar, “Acetone”

Vundabar, “Tonight I’m Wearing Silk”

Joseph Perry is one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast ( and Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast (

He also writes for the retro pop culture website That’s Not Current (, Diabolique Magazine (, Scream Magazine (, and several other print and online film critique and pop culture magazines.  

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