Following a brief period of namelessness, the four-piece post-punk outfit hailing from Calgary, Alberta have returned with a glossier, more accessible sound. Originally known as Viet Cong, the band elected to change their name following protests and at least two canceled bookings — both of which were in response to accusations of cultural appropriation, racism and glorification of the Vietnamese guerilla army. Playing shows as “Matt, Mike, Scott, and Daniel” (their first names) for several months, they settled on Preoccupations after a friend wrote them a list of name suggestions. Returning now with their second eponymous release, Preoccupations debuts a tighter, more organized and vocally-centered sound that’s less fixated on being loud than it is on duplicating the same uneasiness that permeated their 2015 self-titled release as Viet Cong.
Opening with leading single “Anxiety,” Preoccupations does just that. With an ambient, creepy introduction just over one minute in duration, drums and guitar break the silence suddenly and forcefully. Following shortly is vocalist/bassist Matt Flegel’s grating growl, an instrument just as central to the Preoccupations sound as the jangly, hollow guitars that hang over the percussive musings of drummer Mike Wallace. Tied together by a simple, melodic synth line that frequents the remaining three minutes of the track, “Anxiety” is a call to arms, and its most readily quotable lyric is a reminder of the urgency of life: “I’m not here purely for the sake / Of breathing, I am wide awake.”
No single track matches the guitar line in “Continental Shelf,” and the “Silhouettes” bass line is still without equal, but there are flourishes of intense accessibility sprinkled throughout the album. It’s hard to disagree with the aforementioned synth line of “Anxiety,” and for the first ten seconds of “Stimulation,” Preoccupations does an impeccable impression of The Strokes (after which a discordant guitar puts an abrupt end to the façade). It’s difficult to argue that any song off of Viet Cong aside from “Silhouettes” or “Continental Shelf” ever had a sliver of hope for mainstream success. Almost all of them threaten to scare away less open-minded listeners with prolonged, droning builds — see the first three minutes of “March of Progress” — or browbeating percussion (or both). On Preoccupations, however, the band seem to have acknowledged (or at least subconsciously realized) this risk, and while songs like “Monotony” and “Zodiac” aren’t likely to draw listeners in, neither should they turn anyone away.
More than just being accessible, some moments — especially “Fever” and the four-minute mark of “Memory” — explicitly recall new wave. A third of the way through “Memory,” the band emerges from an impatient percussion line in a moment positively reminiscent of New Order. Propulsive yet subtle bass and synthesizer build into Dan Boeckner’s feature (the sole feature on the album). With his nostalgic, Bowie-esque voice, Boeckner strengthens this New Wave impression and provides an intriguing (and welcome) contrast to Flegel’s generally harsh vocals. Though it’s tempting to try to equate “Memory” to Viet Cong’s “Death” – both function as anchors for their respective albums, each clocking in at just over 11 minutes long – “Memory” is pared down, less frantic and more ambient. It’s a good summation of the album as a whole. Where “Death” rails listeners with relentless pounding and wall-of-sound jamming, “Memory” spends its last four minutes fading slowly into nothingness, as memories themselves tend to do.
Following “Memory” is the second single, “Degraded,” in which synthesizers are unabashedly front and center and Flegel, in a rare (and brief) moment of indulgence, sings about relationship woes: “Wondering how long it might take to leave you / I can’t improve.” “Degraded” is certainly a stylistic exploration, but the final quarter of the album is where things get interesting. “Sense” is uneasy but pleasantly ambient, with Flegel trading his typical growl for a falsetto, and segues directly into its other half, the low-key “Forbidden,” whose final seconds are intriguing but wholly unsatisfying. The album is closed out by guitar-heavy “Stimulation,” during which Flegel observes that “We’re all gonna die,” and “Fever,” a pulsing, powerfully repetitive outro on which the synthesizer, in tandem with Flegel’s voice, takes center stage.
Whether or not there was actually speculation that their “identity crisis” would have any effect on their ability to put out quality material, their official return should dispel any worries that listeners may have had. Though some may be displeased with the general departure from the unforgiving intensity of Viet Cong, Preoccupations is an album by the same band as the former, minus their more violent tendencies. Whether or not it is an indication of maturity is unclear and irrelevant; the band is back and they know who they are.