Compromise can be a game changer in the world of popular music. After Viet Cong released their self titled album in 2015 the band increasingly became the target of protests because their name was deemed offensive, racially charged, and guilty of cultural appropriation. In the eighties this story might have caused a Frank Zappa-esque tirade against the forces of censorship and a struggle for the right to freedom of expression. In this instance, though, the Canadian post-punk outfit, unlike many a rock’n’roll rebel before them, were by all accounts upset that their handle could be such a major cause of disquiet.
Their resulting reinvention as Preoccupations has little compromised the group’s industrial, layered approach to production, though. The music is often just as dense as their last record, but Matt Flegel’s surprisingly deep and gravely vocals are forced to the foreground, focusing the attention on his edgy exploration of the human psyche’s darker corners. ‘Anxiety’ is a claustrophobic, paranoiac account of neurosis, while a mechanical drumbeat introduces ‘Monotony’ as the lyrics recount the mental strain of protracted and repetitive factory work.
The increasingly synth-heavy eighties-style production fuses with a greater focus on ambiance and mood as well. Unsettling soundscapes interpose between tracks forming a stark contrast to the fierce energy of ‘Degraded’, the snarling vocals of ‘Zodiac’ and the forceful mono-rhythm of ‘Anxiety’.
The albums sprawling centrepiece, though, is the roughly conjoined triple-header ‘Memory’. Part one combines a mechanical beat with twangy reverb-soaked guitar tones and a spooky theremin-like synth backing. Emerging out of some gradually warping industrial samples, the second part is a bass-driven New Order-esque experience which builds layer upon of guitar noise and vocals, with fellow Canadian indie-rocker Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade) providing one of the album’s catchiest moments with a melodic vocal turn. A spaced-out, feedback-laden drone takes over or the last four minutes or so.
Despite its powerful moments and unsettling psychological themes this record seems preoccupied with being a relatively safe and inoffensive transition, though. Underneath the absorbing atmosphere and new-found clarity of message, there’s something less concentrated about this offering. There’s nothing as engrossing and well constructed as ‘Continental Shelf’, as unrelenting as ‘Death’, or as explosive as ‘Bunker Buster’ from last year’s Viet Cong record, while ‘Forbidden Fruit’ trails off as soon as it begins. For fans of the modern post-punk’s moodier elements, though, in the vein of Protomartyr or Crystal Stilts, the album is certainly an exercise in good taste.
‘Preoccupations’ is out now via Jagjaguwar Records
This Preoccupations article was written by Tadgh Shiels, a GIGsoup contributor