A number of indie aficionados are familiar with the contretemps the Canadian band Preoccupations encountered with their original band name Viet Cong. After the release of their critically acclaimed debut album in 2014, the band was subjected to a virulent backlash from those who took offence to their name. The dustup sullied the reputation of the band members and their scintillating eponymous debut while cut the momentum that was building around their musical career.
The band would regroup and rename themselves Preoccupations then release another eponymous album in September of 2016. That release would display all the angst of their harrowing Orwellian experience. Additional it also contained the catharsis they experienced which enabled them to survive the situation. On March 23rd the band released their third album, New Material. New Material displays a band that is not only back to equilibrium but once again kicking in the preconceived ideas of what 21st century alternative post-punk rock should sound like.
Preoccupations supported their 2016 relaunch by touring extensively. This helped them acquire a master craftsman quality to their musical performance as they toured on what seems like an eternal cycle for the last two years. The end result of all their gruelling experiences is the ability to create songs that feel so familiar but are totally original. Their relentlessly prolific skills have allowed them to release three albums in almost as many years.
New Material blends all that was excellent about their debut and the gained insights of their time spent in the wilderness as captured on the last album. Preoccupations have always been about Blade Runner style instrumentals, noise-addled psychedelia and a sonically rich existential darkness; this time around they have added accessibility. The new release conjures up icy haunted wastelands while creating a solemn beauty. There is a distinct and captivating paradox that exists in offering odes to depression and self-sabotage while makes them mesmerizing to the listener. These creations follow in the tradition of Joy Division, New Order, Can and Kraftwerk. Yet the band evinces a singular ability to take these various inspirations and genres and make them all their own.
The release kicks off with the arresting Espionage and a cacophony of industrial drums. What follows is a classic Joy Division/New Order ethos with lashings of New Wave Synth. What prevents this track from being formulaic is the satisfying unique blend of Goth, Dark Wave, Shoegaze and just the right dollop of self-loathing. There is a heady richness to the claustrophobic composition with the refrain “fallen down…sinking all the way down” burrowing into the psyche feeding the free range paranoia of the offering. The track Decompose continues the feelings and atmosphere of Espionage with hammerhead percussion and the band’s trademark harp effect guitar. This track could have come straight off of their debut but for it being more polished and sophisticated. Frontman Matt Flegel provides a convincing vocal as he delivers lyrics where the message is as dark as their prior efforts but with a cheerier psychedelic underpinning. Flegel on Disarray provides a disembodied vocal, akin to Paul Banks of Interpol, which is apt for the aura of the song. The new ingredient to this and many of the tracks on the release is the underlying hooks. This is in contrast to the corrosive aggressive annihilation of the Vietcong debut that dismissed any need to water down the darkness of the effort.
The impressive Manipulation is a selection that gets to the very heart of what manipulation is and does. It is like the musical rendering of a nightmare subconscious experience with droning pulled around sounds and a hard edge guitar. It is a short but powerful track that leaves its mark. The real centrepiece of the album is Antidote. This track takes aim at social media and how even with all our sophisticated resources given a crisis we resort to the basest of behaviours. What also makes this an exceptional track is the inspired balancing of the throbbing rhythm section with otherworldly synths, vocals and edgy guitars. The injection of industrial noises makes this a song that can be appreciated on so many levels. Also of note is the songwriting that has become clearer and thus more meaningful, “Everything you want slipping through your shaking hands…information overflows looking for antidotes.” Captured in this one track are civilization’s futile exercises and the inevitable disaster that too often results.
After reaching the dark night of the soul where the personal demons have been fought, catharsis occurs, the selection Solace follows. It is a stunner of a track and incrementally brighter than what has followed with its frenetic post-punk 80’s vibe. The bass line here is addictive along with the razor sharp-edged guitar that is Preoccupation’s trademark. The song itself offers an examination of all the crutches we lean on, concession prizes and rationalizations that allow us to continue our lives. This track lightens the mood ever so slightly but it is a short break as the song Doubt unreels. That track begins with a fantastic programmed drum loop and an expansive atmospheric sound that is classic Vietcong era sonics with the miasmic atmosphere and muddied vocal. This would seem sounds slightly off-putting on paper but becomes something other when exposed to the proprietary techniques of the band. As with Manipulation, Doubt feels like the aural interpretation of doubt and the shadow it casts. The song’s lyrics point out that once doubt takes root it seeps into everything liking it to “cells multiply and multiply” and the terrible consequences of encountering doubt. The song is a brilliant Gothic/Darkwave creation.
The final track, Compliance, is an instrument that is exceptional in how it captures the Dante like entrance to a ring of personal hell. This is conveyed by submerged sinister sound effects, screaming synths and buzzsaw guitars. There are no words needed to convey the dread and malevolence on the track, as something wicked this way comes. The track is intense and is reminiscent of the works of Mogwai and fellow peer Wozniak. The song builds and builds to a shattering crescendo bring an end to an astonishing work.
With this record, Preoccupations seem to effortlessly draw a line across any remaining doubts about their potential. They return the listener to the joy of first experiencing their special kind of alchemy found on their debut. The band has discovered a balance between the aggression of the debut and the black moments of the second album making for something transcendent. By further utilizing their belligerent guitars and unnerving punk roar they once again battle themselves, examine their relationships to others and all the paradoxes and contradictions of life. The difference from the first two albums to New Material is this time they approach their themes with more intimacy, forthrightness and without a monkey on their back. Overall New Material is a very impressive offering that should finally put all the baggage of their Vietcong contretemps behind them.