With over a minute of shrill, directionless ringing ushering us into first track Anxiety, we’re not exactly welcomed into Preoccupations’ second album with open arms. This sense of foreboding is then hardly alleviated by a sudden slam of gnarly guitars or Matt Flegel’s throaty growls as he intones, “Recollections of a nightmare, so cryptic and incomprehensible.” Welcome to the world of Preoccupations, with fans of the band expecting nothing less than to be suitably unsettled from the get-go.
After all, at Preoccupations’ core are two of the founding members of Canadian post-punk experimentalists Women – the aforementioned Flegel and drummer Matt Wallace – who together nailed their own niche in conjuring up bleak, dislocating tension with two excellent albums in the late 2000s. After the split of Women, and the sad news of former guitarist Christopher Reimer’s death, Flegel and Wallace resurfaced in 2013 with a new band and a new name, Viet Cong. Last year their self-titled debut album dished out a similar brand of haunting and chaotic ’80s-indebted post-punk and noise rock.
Jump to 2016 and the band have gone through yet another incarnation, this time just in name and, yes, they have retained their signature sound. Only this time it feels a touch more melodic, upfront and, dare we say it, catchy. At least some of the time. Even Anxiety manages to offset the pummeling depression being thrown at us thanks to the surprise inclusion of sparkling synth leads during the chorus. The album is littered with these unforeseen moments and is all the more disconcerting for it. Stimulation, towards the back end of the album, even verges on jaunty. The groove is so tight on this track, as it’s propelled along by bludgeoning drums and a frantic guitar lead. Yet the bass and drums barge the guitar into the background before the song closes out, so they can make sure we’re treated to a good old battering.
The foregrounding of the bass and drums is a recurring feature of the album, making for a more dense and beefy sound than they brought with Women, with guitars and synths popping to the surface now and again to lighten the mood, if only a tad. There is a sumptuous segway between the aptly named Monotony and the brisk and purposeful Zodiac, as bubbling background synths give way to a sharp guitar lead and then Flegel’s aggressive vocal delivery emerges to up the ante still further.
Preoccupations rarely let a song settle before suddenly jolting it off in another direction. This makes listening to them a turbulent ride because we’re never allowed to relax into a track. The band have built a career on perfecting this formula. Even the structure of the album itself is disorienting, as momentum gathers, is suddenly strangled, and then set loose again. Eleven-minute centrepiece Memory, with its typically harrowing lyrics about someone literally losing their mind, gets some great momentum going after a stuttering start, and features an appropriately melodramatic performance from Wolf Parade vocalist Dan Boeckner, before descending into a dreary electronic drone that stretches over five minutes.
And no sooner has the ferocious Degraded picked up the pace then we’re hit with two tracks that each last just over a minute, once again stunting our progress through the album. The first of these, Sense, may even be openly mocking us, as Flegel groans: “You, trying to make sense out, make sense of it all.” Such flagrant disorientation might be off-putting for some, but will be celebrated by long-term followers of the band because, whilst Preoccupations might be sticking to their tried and tested formula of post-punk brutishness, they are still proving to be exhilarating and unpredictable. In fact, they might just be getting better at it.