To listen to Preoccupations is to plunge into arrangements that are more enigmatic the deeper you go. Though Preoccupations’ third LP New Material is the most listenable in their discography, it reveals a labyrinthine sound. Since name change and subsequent eponymous album, they have moved away from the dissonance that characterized Viet Cong while maintaining the essence of what makes their music compelling: each layer of sound obscures the next.
The obscurity is by design. Scott Munro told label Jagjaguwar, “My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing and I think we’ve come closer than ever [on New Material].”
The album opens with echoing percussion, indistinguishably patterned yet not quite arrhythmic. While it is decidedly more subtle than the unyielding pummel of Viet Cong opener “Newspaper Spoons,” it proves Preoccupations’ commitment to percussive experimentation, whether by way of Mike Wallace’s brilliant drum work or Munro’s synth. Espionage is driven by a new wave melody. It struck me at first listen as far removed from the post-punk guitar and bass work for which the band first gained acclaim. However, the post-punk elements are still present are the song’s core.
Likewise, synth has always had a presence in Preoccupations’ music, sometimes as whispers and other times, as on much ofNew Material, as a driving force. Among the discordant layers of Decompose is a shimmering chime, repeated to the point of abstraction. Disarray is the most brightly melodic song in their discography, composed of cascading chords that contrast to Matt Flegel’s unaffected repetition of “Disarray, disarray, disarray.”
Flegel’s lyrical prepossession with technological determinism gives into a sense of futility that leans towards nihilism. OnDisarray, he sings, “Everything you’ve ever been told is a lie.” Manipulation bears the weight of its subject. It trudges towards a final cry, “Please don’t remember me like I always remember you.” Not to be overlooked is the subtle build-up of Wallace’s drum roll.
While Antidote is the best representation of Preoccupations’ style on New Material, “Solace” is the most successful marriage of the band’s old and new style. The former layers rolling drum patterns and distinct bass with effervescent synth. I’m reminded of “Ricochet” by David Bowie, though Flegel’s bass work darkens the mood to better suit the lyrics. The uptempo of Antidote is at odds with the hopelessness of its lyrics: “Whether we asked for it or not, to live is to suffer.” With bellows and clanking in its latter half, “Antidote” moves from post-punk to art rock. Flegel sings as if from the depth of an ocean. Blame it on my bias toward their earlier work, but I’d call ” Solace” the maturation of the Viet Cong style. To hear Munro’s guitar and Flegel’s bass distinctly, enhanced but not overpowered by synth, is immensely satisfying.
While penultimate track “Doubt” matches and exceeds Manipulation in its desolation, it has a gravitas previously unheard in the band’s catalogue. If Antidote is reminiscent of Let’s Dance era Bowie, “Doubt” has the weight of Blackstar with a tone more sinister than melancholy. Flegel’s voice reverberates in whispers of “Multiply” before it fades into instrumental Compliance.
If ever one was to doubt the calibre of Preoccupations’ musicianship, Compliance proves that any such doubts are unfounded. It’s a departure from anything they have recorded previously, darkly industrial. The sound is vast. But for distinct percussion, each instrument melds with the others. It’s enigmatic, evocative and indicative of the depths to which Preoccupations can take their music.
This article was originally posted on Savage Thrills