Preoccupations' former self-titled album Viet Cong came out early last year, and seemed like a surge of defiant energy cutting through the frosty January days and nights. The quartet's vicious percussive gait combined with their scything guitars to make rock songs as ruthless as the army that shared its name. Preoccupations doesn't reinvent the band's sound as much as refine it, which it turns out only makes it all the more scary and hopeless.
What’s in a name? Canadian indie survivors Preoccupations were famously called Viet Cong until quite recently; whether or not you think this was egregiously offensive (if you’re not Vietnamese I suppose it’s not really your shout), the fact that a small-ish guitar act were starting to get bumped from bills over a title they admitted to not being ideologically invested in meant that a change was probably wise. The successor band to the brilliant, inscrutable Women, Preoccupations is the second new name since 2012 for singer-bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace. Clearly, though, this one is not intended as a break with the past: the lineup has stayed stable and recent sets are still stuffed with songs from the self-titled Viet Cong album.
A wash of ringing sounds start us off - it could be a sound as cultured as Tibetan Singing Bowls or as simple as a damp finger rubbing steadily around the rim of a half full wine glass. Then, abruptly, we’re underway with “a sense of urgency and unease”, as a pulsating beat meets an abrasive tone and Matt Flegal croaks out his mantra: “anxiety, anxiety…”. It’s a somber tone with which to begin proceedings but Preoccupations (fka Viet Cong) are an uncompromising band - from the outset, they’re only interested in realising their own vision, following their own individual path.
Formed as Viet Cong in 2012, the Canadian band released their debut in 2015 and changed their name to Preoccupations in 2016 following a minor controversy involving their initial moniker. Their follow-up eponymous album builds on their debut (also eponymous; if they change their name again, perhaps they can release Eponymous 3!), further showcasing the band’s ability to integrate noise, post-punk approaches, and quasi-improvisational drone jams into a cohesive gestalt. With the new album, the band additionally utilizes melodic and dream-pop elements, forging a complex and multifaceted sound that may well appeal to a wide range of listeners.
The Calgary-based four-piece formerly known as Viet Cong had a name that attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Their poorly chosen moniker -- which referred to the militant Vietnamese political group who were responsible for the death and suffering of thousands in South Vietnam and Cambodia -- overshadowed the rightful praise for their music, an otherwise thoughtful mix of post-punk, noise, and existential dread. In 2015, they switched to Preoccupations, a name that might lack shock value but reflects the nagging obsessions that drive their music perfectly.
Borne of an incomparable year, few records in 2016 come with as much baggage as Preoccupations’ self-titled. The newly renamed group’s past still chasing them like a carrier bag stuck to a shoe, they’ve stuck to a relatively stoic path, instead pouring every ounce of their anxiety, confusion and depression into the studio.It’s a bottling-up and subsequent release that works wonders. Opener ‘Anxiety’ perfectly encapsulates the crippling medical condition it takes its name from; an inescapable, stalking whine of feedback eventually erupting into all-encompassing gloom.
The phenomenon of the “difficult second album” doesn’t always have to take the form of a sophomore slump. The concept can be applied in different ways. An artist’s second effort might not be an easy listen, or it might have been a struggle to make. Preoccupations comes at it from a third angle: a record created in the face of outside adversities.
The four members of Preoccupations could make a strong case against the argument that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Scattered public roiling over their former name Viet Cong spread farther than expected and threatened to derail the group just as their instinctively carved brand of post-punk was mounting mass appeal. All of the attention focused on an ill-considered choice in a name overshadowed the caliber of their music.
Given the circumstances surrounding its inception, it’s no wonder that Preoccupations seems so humourless at times. When Viet Cong succumbed to a seemingly unending backlash and settled to change their name, you would think that alone would be enough to put a damper on recording the follow-up. Instead, the darkness that seeps through Preoccupations' self-titled offering comes from a more personal place.
It took seven months for the members of Viet Cong to pick a new band name, but it appears to have been time well spent. On their first album as Preoccupations, they live up to their moniker to an almost scary degree, sounding engrossed in thought to the point of pathological obsession. “With a sense of urgency and unease/Second guessing just about everything” sings Matt Flegel to open the album, in a song called “Anxiety.” Internal stress marks every track, in phrases like “spinning in a vacuum,” “falling into mania,” “so close to exhaustion,” “overwhelmed, and it’s coming from all angles.” By its words alone, Preoccupations reads like fodder for major therapy.
Canadian post-punk outfit Preoccupations’ story is built on new beginnings. They first emerged under the moniker Viet Cong after the dissolution of bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace’s band Women and the death of guitarist Christopher Reimer. But the new name would raise its own share of issues. While their self-titled debut received good-to-glowing reviews, the name itself came with an ugly history of racism and the band was accused of cultural appropriation — despite that never being their intent.
After finally changing their name to Preoccupations, the band of four guys from Calgary have a new album. It, too, is self-titled and a kind of rebirth for the band. Lead single "Anxiety" kicks off the album with dissonance and resignation, a dirge-like anthem with lighter elements that provide reprieve.
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.
Preoccupations are nothing short of a psychedelic trip. After moving past their own internal turmoil as a band, coupled with a name change, they've continued down the road with their brand of distorted, buzzy noise rock that heralds the apocalypse. Their style of post-punk brings forth with it every ounce of tension and gloom creeping the world over and stands at your doorstep like the Grim Reaper checking his watch.
So, the new Viet Cong album then. I’m not going to pretend I understood how offensive it could have been for Vietnamese communities to learn that four white Canadians were happily profiting from the “bad ass” resonance of a name that represented an entire history of trauma for them. Still, I am going to claim that the name change from Viet Cong to Preoccupations was bad for the Lovely Boys (this is the name I prefer to call the group in question), since it appeared to confirm that their image as a band was like a superficial facade with no meaning, weight, or substance behind it.
The band’s press release describes Preoccupations as “a singular, bracing collection that proves what’s punishing can also be soothing, everything can change without disrupting your compass. Your best year can be your worst year at the same time. Whatever sends you flying can also help you land.” And some of you might have an eye-roll at that — press releases are supposed to sell their products however they can.
In 2013, a Canadian post-punk band called Viet Cong embarked on its first tour, stopping to perform in a small, sweaty room in Brooklyn along the way. Their songs featured moments of rhythmic disarray next to sunny, straightforward choruses. A pair of guitarists passed pointillistic figures to each other while the drummer and bassist kept stoic time.
As much as the band and its fans would likely prefer that we move on from the issue, it's pretty much impossible to write about the "debut" album by Preoccupations without discussing their previous debut album as the unfortunately named Viet Cong. The anger and hurt that name provoked, and the band's clumsily slow response to the outcry, is now too big a part of their story to ignore. Of course, many fans never understood why the name was so problematic and hate that people won't stop talking about it.