One year removed from their self-titled album “Viet Cong,” newly named Preoccupations continue to find discord in the darkest depths of the 1980s. A pressing punk sound driven by bass with a baritone vocal drawl at the helm is always going to be inseparable from the post-punk era, meaning that the album must be marked by how it provides revisions to the formula. Beginning with brooding drones, album headliner “Anxiety” only emerges from the ominous space around one minute into the song. Certain songs melt into each other giving an element of continuous soundscape. The 11-minute-long “Memory” may epitomize this notion as the middle of the song finds a completely new vocal melody before harping on more drone sounds as the second half of the album sets in. To some degree, the album operates more in the fashion of post-rock than anything else as the sound is not only marked by brilliant songwriting, but by the sweeping way in which each new sound connects.
Described by lead singer Matt Flegel as a song about “changing as a band,” “Anxiety” begins the album with a conflict of mood. The triumphant nature of the melody and bass line is pitted against a chorus reading “all-encompassing Anxiety.” After each chorus comes a shimmering high-register melody that could also be read as glorious and beautiful, yet the track wholly achieves a certain melancholy in the delivery of each element. Flegel’s monochromatic personality and deep voice bring a certain disinterest to the catchy melody with the high keyboard line achieving a sense of longing. The lyrics also touch upon some of the struggles of critical success: “I’m spinning in a vacuum/Deteriorating to great acclaim.” Especially considering the band’s history with a controversial name and the short amount of time that has passed since their last album, it is clear that a lot of internal conflicts will drive the thematic material for the work. “Monotony” continues the dreariness with gloomy vocal delivery and depressing lyrics: “And it’s bleak and incomplete.” As the song fades into the next, pressing synths come through at a much faster pace to prep for the next song.
Coming together with a more punching vocal delivery and driving instrumentals, “Zodiac” makes for an intense rock sound. Flegel sounds at the edge of breakdown as his rugged baritone voice remains raw and unrelenting. Again, lyrics address the issues of fame, the line “Upped and upped, a humanizing way/But you can’t feel happy every day” suggesting that although one may be lifted up by the people around them, on tour or what have you, sadness is still a relentless reality. Adding to the haunting nature of the sound are lyrics about zodiac signs and sleepwalking which may be a metaphor for fans who follow the crowd and are not actually engaged in the music: “Sleepwalkers out/Of the Zodiac.” Sonically alone, Preoccupations sit in a particularly dark place and the idea of zodiac adds another element to the mystery. Standing at 11 minutes long with vocal work from Flegel and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, the next tune, “Memory,” stands as the album’s centerpiece. The piece will go down for its brilliant change of direction. First, a straight-ahead Preoccupations song ensues with Flegel singing over a disjointed groove. Then, around three minutes into the song, the groove begins looping faster and faster until a new one takes its place. This is when the song takes a turn for the gorgeous. Boeckner’s triumphant melody softly floats in on soaring high notes with a shimmering guitar line picking up. Flegel re-enters for a new chorus bringing the song full circle.
The second half of the album continues the wave of the first with “Degraded” and “Fever” standing as highlights. Aesthetically speaking, the album is extraordinarily well thought out. Bass and guitars become a small piece of the puzzle as melodic layering gives the sound a weighty depth. In “Fever,” for instance, the guitar melodies become the main focus after each chorus, but the groove of the song is driven by oscillating keyboards and synths. Guitars only breach the soupy surface on occasion rather than constantly supporting the melody. Bass also takes a backseat during this song, rarely doing more than filling out the lower end, as opposed to some of the more bass-centric grooves at the beginning of the album. This contributes to the unpredictability of the songs as instances of structured rock grooves are still marked by creative instrumental approaches.
Perhaps this sparring of using guitars and bass in a traditional punk or post-punk manner may offer some explanation for the way the album develops. Just as a rock song on the album may be disguised by unpredictable use of instrumentals, these songs themselves can be disguised by the unpredictable pacing of the album. Preoccupations will occasionally add pressure to the timing of their music by beginning their songs right on top of each other. Then, when a climax hits, the band cools done with a couple minutes of drones. Some of these rock sounds can easily be poorly executed, but by maintaining an aspect of fluidity the band keeps the listener guessing.
This album is well put together as a whole, but it must be considered that these sounds have to some extent existed already. In a sense, Preoccupations are masters of rock and punk and their contributions to the genre probably will not stand the test of an extremely long period of time. Yet again, with all things considered the group has successfully re-introduced themselves to the world with fantastic songwriting, soundscaping skills, and aesthetic mastery.
Not a completely ground breaking work but certainly a brilliant example of rock for 2016.