Rarely does a band’s second album have so much baggage to deal with. In Preoccupation’s new record, “Preoccupations, the group may as well work for check-in at LaGuardia.
Preoccupations, formerly named Viet Cong, is a Canadian post-punk outfit comprised of two members of now-defunct group Women. Singer and bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace released two albums as Women, before combining with guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen—whose previous experience included performing in a Black Sabbath cover band—to form Viet Cong. After low-key public outcry, the band changed its name to avoid further controversy.
Despite the lineup iterations and name changes, however, Preoccupations’ modus operandi has largely remained the same: fuzzy and cavernous post-punk clearly aping genre standards such as Joy Division. Their 2015 album “Viet Cong” (how many differently titled eponymous albums can a band have?) was marked by psychedelic synths and chiming guitar work over thunderous drums as Flegel’s throaty and distinctly British-sounding vocals rang from two rooms over.
“Preoccupations,” however is a departure from the haze and unrefined nature of “Viet Cong,” with pop synthesizers playing a huge role in the album, often replacing the rich guitar interplay that so often characterizes post punk—a change that brings parts of the album closer to new wave than the punk the band has built its brand on.
“Anxiety” opens the album, and initially sounds like
old-school Preoccupations, with some kind of guitar effect beginning the song
before endless drone and bass pedal back up Flegel’s singing. His singing, however, here seems to have a
range of roughly three notes—all of which unfortunately seem to fall below his
comfort level, leading the song to be dominated by what sounds like three
verses and choruses of vocal fry. A
cheap-sounding synth line appears after every chorus,
its effect as an intimidating and ominous opener.
The next song continues with the synthetic theme, and is led off by either a drum machine or highly altered studio drums before a comparatively clear and unaffected guitar line brings in the body of the song. Flegel’s voice travels into a more comfortable range for this track, and complements the drums in a strong back-and-forth, allowing the guitar to fill the gaps between verse and chorus. The song seamlessly flows into “Zodiac,” which is dominated by Flegel’s snarl over primal, almost snare-less drums.
The album is centered around 11-and-a-half-minute opus “Memory,” which features an aimless outro so long that by the end the listener has no memory of a melody existing in the first six minutes of the song. The song starts with a syncopated keyboard line that forms the base of the first three minutes before manipulated drums raise the tempo to almost LCD Soundsystem-esque dance punk. Waves of guitar effects wash over the vocals, obscuring guest vocals from Dan Boeckner, before all sound fades out besides a wash of shimmering guitar rides the last four minutes of the song out.
Even with the relative fogginess of “Memory,” “Preoccupations” is, as a whole a much more refined work than “Viet Cong.” “Stimulation” features drums almost crisp enough to sound like a machine, and the guitar is so minimal that almost every word of Flegel’s verses can be heard—a rarity. In album closer “Fever,” guitar is almost an afterthought to the synthesizers that haunt the music of the 1980’s.
“Preoccupations” is more conventional and melodic than “Viet Cong,” for sure, yet suffers for it. The band is not original enough in its approach, drawing heavy-handedly from its influences—including Swans, Joy Division—and failing to leave its own impression by the end of the album, something no one could blame the band in its past versions to have done.
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