Just 20 months and innumerable Internet outrage cycles after their fierce self-titled debut, Calgary’s Viet Cong is back, but blandly rebranded as Preoccupations. Having scrubbed their Wikipedia page accordingly, they’ve regained much-coveted Oberlin College marquee privileges, but otherwise they pick up right where they left off, playing arty, heavy indie rock with the post-apocalyptic chill of post-punk. Preoccupations seems to be the band’s version of an outreach effort: The songs are much more melodic, punchier, and more precise. The band has softened their serrated edges and bolstered the hooks-to-dissonance ratio toward the former.
As Preoccupations unfolds, the band’s experimental impulses show themselves, but in a pithier fashion. Indeed, the more adventurous and astringent flavors are joined with sweeter notes throughout. “Anxiety” opens the album with a minute of ringing feedback before a thick, throbbing pulse crashes through, clearing the floor for frontman Matt Flegel’s “recollection of a nightmare/So cryptic and incomprehensible,” but yielding just as soon to a shimmering synth figure. “Fever,” the album’s closer, makes synth-pop out of off-key sustains and a metronomic beat, while “Memory,” with its aching, arena-ready anthem, is easily the most accessible and heartfelt song the band has ever recorded—except that said anthem is embedded in an 11-minute song suite that ends with a five-minute ambient wash.
The album retains its predecessor’s rich, atmospheric textures. Having long ago unburdened themselves of the separation of post-punk and psychedelic rock, Preoccupations plug punchy riffs and propulsive rhythms into a vast array of effects pedals, achieving a cavernous, otherworldly sound around even comparatively conventional structures. Brian Eno’s influence is especially apparent. The guitar line on “Fever” apes the fuzzy, friendly alien warmth Eno coaxed out of Robert Fripp’s licks on Another Green World, lending further levity to an album that, while certainly angst-ridden, embraces the chiming melodicism of early R.E.M. and descendants like Real Estate and Kurt Vile.
As the album unfolds, the band’s experimental impulses show themselves, but in a pithier fashion.
Preoccupations is focused on songcraft. The freewheeling, spiky abstractions peppered throughout the band’s earlier work as Viet Cong and Women are all but absent. While not exactly slick, the album has the polished dynamism of studio pop, its hooks varnished for maximum impact. Cohered by the theme of finding deliverance in unreason (sample lines include “To be in a complete state of consciousness/Is completely intolerable” and “We’re running out of things to hurt/Never ending ways to be absurd”), the songs all bear one-word titles referring to specific subthemes: “Monotony,” “Degraded,” “Stimulation,” and so on. Flegel’s delivery is gruff and withering throughout, like an unexcitable Richard Butler, but foregrounded in the mix, he does start to sound a bit samey. Dan Boeckner’s soulful guest vocals on the middle section of “Memory” offer some much-needed catharsis.
If Preoccupations is marred by anything, it’s the inevitable comparison to Viet Cong, which had a command of tension and release that was surreptitious and unrelenting, apropos given its namesake. Preoccupations, by design, neither grips nor pays off with the same level of gleeful improvisational intensity. Except for “Memory,” nothing is given the space to build in quite the same way as the songs were on the often labyrinthine Viet Cong: “Sense” and “Forbidden” are both the most offbeat tracks on the album and, at just over a minute apiece, not nearly long enough to let their ideas develop.
Still, this is one of the very few bands who can speak the dead language of Joy Division and make it come alive. Mainly that’s a credit to the band’s ace musicianship, including drummer Mike Wallace, whose jagged patterns give everything a cheerfully oblong shape. But it’s also due to an indefatigable openness: to changing their name; to cobbling disparate styles together; and trying, however briefly, a little bit of tenderness.