Fresh off a name change from Viet Cong and the release of their self-titled album (which was my seventh favourite album of last year), Preoccupations return with yet another fantastic record that sits among the year’s best. And, embracing the change of name, the band has come out with an album that also represents a slight change of direction this time around. Although Preoccupations, like Viet Cong before it, is primarily a blend of indie rock and post-punk, the reference points and influences evident of this album are a bit different, and there’s been a notable change in production style in the transition.
Where Viet Cong was raw and loud, Preoccupations is thick and textured. The production on many of these tracks utilise drones and heavy reverb to create walls of sound that envelop rather than assault. And there is a greater prominence afforded to the synthesizers, whose glistening tones often provide a counterpoint to the sombre mood created by the rest of the music. This blend of bright and bleak throws a touch of New Wave/Darkwave into the mix, and reveals the band’s love for groups like The Cure and New Order in a way that wasn’t evident before.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the song ‘Memory’, which transitions at the four minute mark from an eerie mid-tempo chug into a shimmering New Wave tune that sounds more than a little bit like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Although the band don’t do anything particularly new with the style, it provides a nice contrast to some of the records darker moments, and throws in a bit of variety. The weirder corners of post punk are still given due diligence here, too. Opener ‘Anxiety’ is a dissonant and unsettling intro to the record, as befitting its lyrical themes. Vocalist Matt Flegel sings about ‘all-encompassing anxiety’ over a bed of sour drones and synths, setting the tone for an album that is slower, darker and thicker than its predecessor.
‘Stimulation’ is perhaps my favourite track on the record, and represents the bands most effective synthesis of post-punk and indie rock to date. While the song has all the rhythm and energy of an indie rock tune, the muted guitars which whine away in the distance and the loud, driving bass provide the propulsion of post-punk. The song builds to a volatile climax of sharp guitars and spitting drums, cutting out tantalisingly right as it threatens to explode. While I would have happily listened to a ten or even fifteen minute version of this song in the vein of ‘Death’, the closer of their previous album, I think the band exercised a lot of restraint in keeping it tight like this.
And, having mentioned ‘Death’, which still stands as the bands crowning achievement in my eyes, I have to say that the highlights on Preoccupations aren’t quite as high as they were on Viet Cong: this is a more measured and more consistent album with a heavier focus on mood and texture. The only complaint I could make about Preoccupations is that while the first of the two one minute interlude tracks was a nice breather, ‘Forbidden’ just feels like the introduction to a regular length song which fades out as soon as the drums and bass come in. That one could have been left on the cutting room floor.
Aside from this misstep, Preoccupations proves to be yet another fantastic record from one of the most interesting bands playing either post-punk or indie rock in 2016. It represents a progression in terms of production and a change in musical direction which nevertheless stays true to the band’s style. I’m excited to see where the group goes next.