If you look for Viet Cong’s first (and only) album on Spotify, you’re not going to find it. It no longer exists. It has been erased from history. Those mythical few who still purchase physical media will extend their wrinkled, disfigured hands out from crimson robes to present CD binders that tell a different story. Peer inside and you’ll see strange metallic discs bearing the name “Viet Cong”. Unexplainable, even by science.
If you’re inclined to buy into clandestine nonsense like this though, I have a story to weave. There was once a band named Viet Cong, and they were awesome. Sure their name was stupid, but their music was kinda stupid too. It dug into stupid emotions. It looked at the world and all of its stupidity and nudged it a little. Viet Cong wasn’t the type of band name that was going to lead to sold-out stadiums, but it felt appropriate in a way. Maybe that’s why they changed it.
And change they did, as Viet Cong’s artist field now boldly proclaims “Preoccupations”.
Preoccupations is a much more marketable but much less interesting name. It’s as meaningless as calling your band “Viet Cong,” but with none of the punk rock image. It’s a dry cough of a band name. Part of me thinks they were channeling something along the lines of Boredoms, but the music is too straightforward to benefit from any name-derived friction. They just sound like they’re preoccupied.
And so goes the music. Viet Cong was a shellshocked missive from an underground bunker. With every bass drum hit, dust shook from the ceiling. Lights swayed. The environment was concrete and darkness and the distant thud of artillery.
Preoccupations, meanwhile, takes place inside a recording studio.
The band seem to have learned the wrong lessons about how to convey emotions. Viet Cong deals in powerful emotions, not complex ones. It is a blunt record, and despite some relatively unique lyrical content, it deals mostly in broad strokes. Lots of anger, lots of malice. It’s a bare power cord.
Rather than refine these emotions into something more knurled (as I would have hoped) or widely palatable (as would make sense given the name change), they drop the whole charade entirely. Preoccupations floats by, suggesting emotions rather than creating or employing them. Most frustratingly, the band don’t seem to realise this. The album drifts into ambient sections every so often which seem to suggest blown ears or some other type of volume-induced catharsis. On Viet Cong this would have made sense, but here it seems completely at odds with the relatively less intense music. With no buildup, these sections feel like wastes of time. They are the soundtrack to me forgetting I’m listening to music.
Which is all to say that Preoccupations is simply not as exciting as Viet Cong. Not even close. It’s not as though the name change (if there was a name change, wink wink) ruined the band’s ability to make clever, agile post-punk, but they’ve become too safe within their new moniker. It’s a perfect name for a band who have lost their lightning rod intensity. Here’s hoping the third (second?) time restores the charm.
There’s a walloping drone that leads Preoccupations, where vocals grovel while a few synthesizers ring a few 1980s tunes and the world falls apart. It sounds like a Steven King-penned punk band, where there’s a looming horror buried in some kind of B-movie nostalgia (imagine Stranger Things as a new wave record written by the troubled teenager with the camera). Honestly, Preoccupations’ murky synthesizers and New Order-gone-bad grooves were exactly what I wanted coming off of Stranger Things’ zeitgeist-fueled ode to all things Spielberg.
A devotion to that dusty ancient horror-gone-new-wave tone echoes throughout Preoccupations. Basslines clump along an atmosphere of synthesizers and romantic croons, songs pulsating like a John Carpenter soundtrack before breaking into sprints (“Zodiac”) or disappearing completely into spatial abyss (“Memory”). Lead singer Matt Flegel belts out desperation between clouds of static and roiling hooks, lyrics spinning between Internet-age nihilism (“We’re all dumb inside/all dead inside/all gonna die” on “Stimulation”) to Gigerian horror (“You’ve been made irrelevant by a suicide machine” on “Forbidden”).
But on maybe my second or third listen though, about halfway through the coasting first half of “Memory” (one of the record’s few truly underwhelming moments) I remembered what about Preoccupations initially stuck out to me. A year or so ago, Preoccupations went by a different name and released a different self-titled debut that sounds almost foreign to Preoccupations and its Cure-copping cries. Highlights on that album, irreverently titled Viet Cong, didn’t dance but erupted, spewing shards of post-punk noise across sprawling industrial rock.
Since that debut, Preoccupations went through more than just a name change. They became unintended villains in a culture war, were forced to drop concerts because of their name and fully embraced a Robert Smith influence that churned Viet Cong into something a little more… digestible. Preoccupations is a haunting reimagining (for a band that, itself, was a reimagining), but feels more like an album than it does a statement. Preoccupations is the sound of a band in détente; Viet Cong, meanwhile, was an unforgiving artillery barrage.
On one hand, Preoccupations is the crawling horror of a chic 1980s and millennial zeitgeist, a foreboding camp mixed with the danceable rhythm of new wave’s greatest hits. On the other, it feels like a hesitant step down from the serrated riffs and ferocity of Viet Cong’s incursive debut. Where this leaves Preoccupations, I can’t say for certain – just like Preoccupations, I have my own nostalgia to placate. But while I might long for a past, sharper band, Preoccupations have still wrought a gorgeous-if-tempered album of shrapnel vocals and lucid synthesizers. It’s the kind of disenchanted evolution that I think I can (un)comfortably settle into.
Preoccupations is out now, courtesy of Jagjaguwar.