Preoccupations is the band formerly known as Viet Cong. Viet Cong was a band that put out one of my favorite albums of 2015. Preoccupations is a band that may have put out one of my favorite albums of 2016. Not only for the fact that their self-titled album is a beautifully dark concoction of post-punk abyss and bits of light shining through the grainy muck and mire, but for the fact that these four Canadian musicians persevered through a year of calamities, broken bones, desolate gigs, and ultimately a band name controversy that ended up seeing the band disappear for a few months as Viet Cong and reemerge as Preoccupations. This record is a testament to the frustration, broken relationships, loneliness, defeat, and desolation of a year of general misfortune and finding a beauty in it all.
There’s an industrial graininess to Preoccupation’s music. It sounds as if it came off an assembly line in some long dead factory located in an overgrown lot awaiting demolition. When you first hear album opener “Anxiety” that grey and soot-filled landscape of Eraserhead comes to mind. Singer/bassist Matt Flegel’s voice sounds like a cross between Peter Murphy and Neil Diamond. This is the guy that covered the former’s “Dark Entries” a couple years ago, but could pull off “Forever In Blue Jeans” like a champ. With “Monotony” that gravelly voice only solidifies the Diamond mannerisms, but only if the Jazz Singer would be down with Wire’s 154. The 11-minute “Memory” floats along on something that resembles a good vibe, or at least a smile as you sink into the ether. There’s some great guest vocals by fellow Canadian and Handsome Furs/Divine Fits singer Dan Boeckner. The track goes from driving force to melting into the abyss. It’s a mesmerizing listen.
I think what I find so amazing about this record and band is their ability to go so dark in mood, yet still put this sheen of optimistic light throughout the gloom. There are truly harrowing moments on this album, but there are also some nearly new wave-ish sounds happening here. “Degraded” rises through the speakers in a sheet of white noise and feedback before morphing into one of the most “pop” moments we’ve heard from these guys. There’s also more emphasis on rhythm this time around, as Flegel and drummer Michael Wallace lock in for some serious groove throughout the record. Guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen use their 6-strings just as much for creating swaths of noise and mood as they do for creating melody. They seem to be painting abstract over the skeletal grooves. “Forbidden” is dark and foreboding, while “Stimulation” sounds like The Police circa 1979 colliding with Rush circa 1984. A propulsive beat is painted in jangle guitar and Matt Flegel’s urgent vocals. “Fever” is a synth-heavy closer that has a doomed calm to it. “You’re not scared, carry your fever away from here” Matt Flegel sings as hazy synths consume everything till silence.
Preoccupations sounds like a band more comfortable as a band, but not necessarily content. There’s still plenty of push and pull on this record. There’s tension and skepticism about where we’re all going as humanity seems to continue to rot from the inside out. Despite what may sound like a downer of an album, Preoccupations self-titled is as engaging as it is harrowing. There’s beauty in the shadows and darkness, as Preoccupations point out one song at a time.