In 2013, a Canadian post-punk band called Viet Cong embarked on its first tour, stopping to perform in a small, sweaty room in Brooklyn along the way. Their songs featured moments of rhythmic disarray next to sunny, straightforward choruses. A pair of guitarists passed pointillistic figures to each other while the drummer and bassist kept stoic time. The music was radiant, and I loved it immediately, even if it sounded a lot like Women.
Viet Cong have since shed their name, due to its nasty martial overtones, and now go by the more palatable if less memorable Preoccupations. They’ve also shed much of the baggage of Women, singer/bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace’s previous band, which made two remarkable albums before abruptly breaking up following an onstage brawl and the unrelated death of a member in 2012. Women’s recorded output was small, but their sound–twisted and dissonant, with lots of odd meters and a handful of unexpected hooks–made an imprint on a number of younger bands, not least of which was Viet Cong.
The self-titled Preoccupations album is the debut release under their new name, but it comes third in the band’s catalog, following a cassette they pressed to sell on that first tour and a self-titled 2015 album as Viet Cong. (They announced the name change last year after a series of protests and at least one cancelled show over the old one.) While the previous releases were clearly traceable back to Women’s spindly sound, Preoccupations largely abandons it in favor of the more industrial atmosphere the quartet began exploring on Viet Cong. But where that record’s drones and rhythmic loops evoke the claustrophobia of an uncertain mind turning in on itself, Preoccupations works with a richer emotional palette. Backed by a high guitar line on “Monotony,” Flegel lays out a dichotomy of feelings that could also serve as the album’s mission statement: “Cautiously optimistic / Tearfully sadistic.”
The band picks up its synths and samplers at least as often as its guitars, and Flegel’s voice is given new room to snarl in the mix. “Memory,” a 12-minute triptych featuring Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade on vocals, contains what is almost certainly the first piece of music in the Preoccupations/Women canon that could be accurately described as “new wave,” and though Boeckner’s swaggering romanticism would have been a jarring break to the chill of earlier records, he sounds right at home on Preoccupations.
But the band’s psychic space hasn’t changed entirely, even if the walls are painted a warmer color and a friend occasionally drops by to say hello. That much can be gleaned simply by reading the album’s song titles, many of which sound like they might belong to lost Joy Division B-sides: “Monotony,” “Degraded,” “Forbidden,” “Stimulation,” “Anxiety.” The album opens with a bit of shimmering ambience that hangs around just long enough for it to register as a genuine surprise when a synth bass line charges in, steady and asymmetrical. “With a sense of urgency and unease, second-guessing just about everything / Recollections of a nightmare, so cryptic and incomprehensible,” Flegel sings.
Even at its most inviting, Preoccupations is touched by that urgency and unease, and moments of clangor appear throughout: the frenetic snare rolls that close “Stimulation,” the jagged and percussive opening of “Memory.” The only moment that could reasonably be confused with Women, or even with Viet Cong’s earliest output, comes during “Forbidden,” when Preoccupations interrupt their own arpeggiated reverie with a stab of bridge-pickup guitar treble and tumbling bass and percussion. At that moment, they sound uncannily like the old band, but after just fifteen seconds or so, the groove fades out and the song ends. “You’re not scared,” Flegel sings a few minutes later, as if reassuring himself of the path forward, while the music swells around him and the album draws to a close. “You’re not scared / Carry your fever away from here.”