Preoccupations: a band in a state of disarray, uncertain of any future they may have, but perhaps their eponymous new release will put these fears to rest.
Preoccupations are by no means unacquainted with instability and controversy; band members Patrick Flegel and Mike Wallace know this all too well, dating back to 2010 when their acclaimed band Women entered what would unknowingly become an indefinite hiatus. Women were arguably one of the most exciting and promising acts in rock music at the time, releasing the album Public Strain to widespread acclaim, even reaching a cult status among fans. A fight between group members prematurely cut short their tour and ultimately ended in Women’s breakup, leaving Flegel and Wallace to form a new band, Viet Cong, with what was left. The band was hounded with controversy, centring on their politically oriented name (despite not being the only band with a similarly offensive band name: Gang of Four and Joy Division existed without such complications), the Vietnamese community spoke up against the choice and shows were cancelled by venues as a reaction, leaving Viet Cong with little choice but to apologise and change their name. Matt Flegel described his experience with the controversy, saying it “put a damper and put a lot of stress on us” but regardless, they’re back now, and hopefully this time in a more stable manner with less uncertainty regarding their continuance.
Noisy and cacophonous, Preoccupations still exist in the same territory as Viet Cong, but there’s an evident sonic shift under their new moniker to a more melodic synth-focused style of 80s inspired post-punk. Preoccupations is evocative of the more brooding, moody type of atmospheric post-punk you’d hear on an album like The Sound’s Jeopardy for example, especially with its appealing little synth accents fighting to contrast the bleakness of the record. A perfect example of just how anxious sounding they can be is in the opening track Anxiety with its uneasy minute-long buzzing drone introduction, giving way to Flegel’s guttural, almost monotone vocals, propagating a feeling of tension atop the confined, claustrophobic production (all meant as a positive, honestly). There comes a beautiful moment on the track however where the darkness is cast aside and emphasis is thrown onto a vibrant, shining synth. It’s incredibly effective in that it perfectly strikes a balance between darkness and brightness, with the catchy lead melody subjected to the racket of the echoing crashes and drone beneath.
it’s not all gloom…
They achieve the same effect on Zodiac, this time with gothic rock inspired synths for the bridge. It’s faster paced and more abrasive than the former tracks, with Flegel’s vocals sounding more rough and sinister than ever. Then comes the album’s centrepiece, the mammoth 11 and a half minute track Memory. The track as a whole is composed of 3 connected passages, the first being a slow-building dreamlike wash of jangly guitars, proving the record isn’t going to be wholly bleak and hopeless, but instead seeking to hit this aforementioned balance. The drums begin to loop and gain tempo propelling the song into its second section and the mood shifts into possibly the most optimistic it ever reaches across the album. They ride this wave of optimism out, even switching up the lead vocals to Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, before settling down into a stretch of sedative ambient sound for the third and final segment of the song.
Degraded swells slowly to begin with, with its ethereal synth arpeggios rising from the hushed flow of the ambient drones on the previous track, but gradually the song becomes more forceful as it picks up speed, and even becomes fairly menacing in its final 30 seconds. Sense and Forbidden are bizarre in that they feel more like motifs than fully finished tracks; the former stands at 1 minute in length and isn’t especially interesting at all. It feels like an interlude at best and seems to serve no particular purpose at all other than to provide a bit of downtime. The latter, Forbidden, is the more interesting of the two and infuriatingly cuts short just as it begins to pick up momentum. It lazily fades out, providing all the impact of a limp handshake. It’s unclear as to why the decision was made to include these as it leaves the second side of the record feeling stunted and disjointed, possibly a reflection of the stressful recording conditions the band were under.
Stimulation restores clarity however and is a standout section of the second half of the record, with its incredibly catchy synth phrase sounding like it was lifted straight from an unreleased Magazine track. Flegel’s lyrics are desperately despairing, just as they are across the entire breath of the album; “There’s nothing you can do because we’re all dumb inside / All dead inside / All gonna die”, perhaps overly dramatic for the lyric-focused listener, but these kinds of lyrical themes are littered all across Preoccupations, and indeed the genre as a whole. But as it has been stated numerous times, it’s not all gloom, the closing track glides to a climax with the more hopeful feeling sentiment “You’re not scared / You’re not scared / Carry your fever away from here” repeated over the sound of rising guitars, an assertive, unwavering kick drum and an ever-expanding atmosphere which threatens to swallow the mix at any moment.
Preoccupations invariably improve upon where Viet Cong left off and it’s a great example of an impressive revivalist post-punk album. While its influences are certainly discernible, it’s still interesting enough to hold the attention of the listener throughout. Overall, Preoccupations feels like an homage to post-punk from across the spectrum, from the late 70s to the early 80s, pasted together in a collage that could deliver at least a twinge of nostalgia to anybody, even for a time they didn’t experience.