Original photo courtesy of Alessio Boni
Review by Michael O'Neill
Not too many bands get more than one shot at a self-titled record. Led Zeppelin pulled it off for four fantastic albums; Weezer saw more mixed result. With their eponymous sophomore effort released this month, Calgary quartet Preoccupations have put their own twist on the self-titled format. Formerly going by the name “Viet Cong,” the band apologetically changed their name after many pointed out its insensitive nature, including a promoter at Oberlin College who cancelled a scheduled show over the controversy. They eventually settled on switching to “Preoccupations,” but their 2015 debut record still bears the Viet Cong moniker. Thus, this fall’s Preoccupations is the band’s second self-titled album, to go along with the band’s second name.
With the name change comes a shift in sound for Preoccupations. The frenetic, nervous energy of Viet Cong remains, as do the clear post-punk influences of Joy Division. But Preoccupations is an undeniably tighter record in more ways than one: the songs are mostly shorter, the production is less reliant on reverb, the grooves are more locked-in, and the album as a whole has a less chaotic feel than Viet Cong. Ultimately, Preoccupations sounds like a band that has been playing together longer, and with more confidence.
Another new feature of Preoccupations is a heavier usage of synthesizers and electronic instruments, as is evident from the album’s opening track. “Anxiety” reproduces its title for the listener by spending its first minute shrouded in droning keys, before a sudden alarm of drums and bass barges into the mix. Singer Matt Flegel’s opening lyric is as self-referential as can be: “With a sense of urgency and unease,” he grumbles, as the instruments churn ahead. Splashes of keyboards dot the verses and chorus, providing texture without overshadowing the group’s propensity for jagged guitar riffs. “Monotony” transitions into “Zodiac” via a pulsating synthesizer pattern, one that the bass mimics throughout the track.
Sitting in the center of the album is the behemoth “Memory,” an eleven-minute track split into three distinct sections. Though not as chaotic or claustrophobic as Viet Cong’s marathon-length closer “Death,” “Memory” justifies its lengthy runtime with memorable hooks and stunning atmosphere. It opens with an off-kilter drum beat that soon develops into a song about forgiveness. “You don’t have to say sorry / For all the things you failed to do,” sings Flegel, who channels the ghost of Ian Curtis throughout the album but does so on this song in particular. A warped drum beat signals the changeover to the song’s second movement, which begins with one of the warmest and most pleasing bass lines you’ll hear all year. Dan Boeckner of fellow Canadian outfit Wolf Parade sings the song’s latter verses, injecting a nice contrast to Flegel’s baritone rumble. “Memory” rides the bass groove for a few minutes before descending into depths of ambient guitars.
Viet Cong may have been critically-acclaimed, but Preoccupations’ more polished feel (and more digestible name) makes the band feel ready for a commercial breakthrough. The aforementioned “Monotony” is tame enough to fit on rock radio, as is the jumpy and rambunctious “Degraded.” The shiniest moment on the record is “Stimulation,” which sounds like a Smiths track gone off the rail. The shifty guitar riff sounds ripped straight from a Johnny Marr composition, and the song careens towards a dramatic conclusion: Flegel raggedly shouts, “There’s nothing you can do / ‘Cause we’re all dumb inside / All dead inside / All gonna die.” Despite the morose lyrics, it’s the most consumer-friendly song Preoccupations have ever recorded, merging the group’s unhinged sound with shimmering instrumentals flawlessly.
As if designed to summarize the band’s new look, “Fever” caps off Preoccupations with sparkling synths and some of Flegel’s most soft-spoken lyrics yet. “You’re not scared / Carry your fever away from here,” he exhorts. It closes out the album with warmth, a stark contrast to Viet Cong’s ice-cold finale “Death.” “Fever,” like much of Preoccupations, glimmers where you might not expect it to.
After the controversy over the Viet Cong name, Preoccupations desperately needed a clean slate despite the strength of their debut. A nimble rebranding and thoroughly impressive sophomore album have given them just that. Preoccupations may not feel like the world is falling apart around you in the way that Viet Cong did, but it maintains some of the eerie ambiance of its predecessor while making it clear that the name isn’t the only thing that has changed about this band. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that you’ll be wanting more and more music from Preoccupations in the future