Wednesday, January 21, 2015

album review: 'viet cong' by viet cong

So I've talked before about how various musicians in indie rock have a reputation for having multiple projects running simultaneously in order to try out different styles and sounds or simply find the one that manages to catch fire. The funny thing is that in the age of the Internet, acts can very quickly build an underground cult following, and with sites like Pitchfork covering many of these projects, it means that critical acclaim can befall an act without sales or additional popularity coming along. And if the artists want to move along and try new things, it can mean they leave their fanbases hungry for more and following after whatever these artists try to assemble next.

And the more I started digging into Canadian indie rock group Viet Cong, the more I expected that some of the hype surrounding this band was coming from this phenomenon. Two members of the group, drummer Michael Wallace and bassist Matthew Flegel were previously from the critically acclaimed art rock group Women, who briefly made a splash in the late 2000s with two pretty damn great records before breaking up midtour, which took a jangly lo-fi yet exceptionally melodic and hook-driven sound and paired it with skeletal production that drew comparisons to a darker, more stripped-down Beach Boys or especially The Velvet Underground. As such, I could definitely see the interest now being taken in Viet Cong - even though that band was advertising their sound as having a much stronger post-punk influence. But hell, I like post-punk, so I made sure to give Viet Cong's self-titled debut a couple deep listens - what did we get here?

Well, overall, a pretty interesting record, and one that is significantly trickier to decode than one might expect upon first or second listen. I'm not going to say that Viet Cong's self-titled debut works or is the second coming of Women for which so many people were hoping, but as its own distinctive post-punk-inspired noisy animal, with more focus on twisted, ragged grooves over melody and a wry sense of gallows humor, it's definitely got a certain charm to it.

So let's start with our band themselves, and to some extent, if you're familiar with some of the production styling of Women, you're not going to be all that surprised - jagged guitar lines with prominent treble, sharply defined slices of distortion, propulsive, march-and-gallop-like beats and percussion rumble with lo-fi menace, cavernous, drowned-out vocals, they're all here. But Viet Cong's post-punk influences are more prominent: shimmering, faded keyboards, a tone that's all exposed distorted nerves and tension, skeletal, noisy, and lo-fi but with enough cleaner elements to lend the album poise. If I were to have a production element to criticize on this album, it'd be in the bass - it often feels a little formless and lacking in rollicking force to compliment the mean wallop of the drums, and it means the more chaotic elements of the album do have more free reign than one might expect, which can lead to off-kilter key changes or tracks stretching their grooves into longer progressions, like on the eleven minute closing track 'Death'. But make no mistake, some of these progressions are pretty damn potent, like the thunderous crunch of the beat on 'Newspaper Spoons' that eventually lets keyboards creep in, the stiff gallop of 'March Of Progress' that eventually kicks into brittle, plucked arpeggios, the sizzling haze of distortion on 'Continental Shelf' that has fragments of definition with the more prominent bass, guitar melody, and jangling percussion, and the great synth backdrop to the chugging grooves of 'Silhouettes'. And yet it's a bit of a mixed blessing - for as good as some of these progressions are, the fact that the album is only seven tracks and most run long means we don't get a lot of variety outside of incremental shifts in key or tempo, and I get the feeling that Viet Cong could have afforded to push a little harder here.

Granted, to some extent the album does feel like a reset buttom from Women, defining a new approach but not quite maintaining all of the same growth from Public Strain - and to some extent that's expected with a debut in this vein in creating that new sound. It helps matters that Matt Flegel's voice is a natural fit for post-punk - energetic yet melancholic, poised and controlled but acrid and bitter, buried within the mix where he can be heard yet not always easily understood. And really, that's an apt fit for the lyrics too, which toe the line between typical post-punk angst and sheer, seething irritation and bitterness at an uncaring, painful world. I definitely dig the technical songwriting of this record, as the lyrics are wordy and complex and yet somehow oblique, sketching situations of tension and bitterness and anger yet never really having the directness of a band like, say, Savages. Viet Cong are more content to let the songs simmer and seethe and stew, which does a lot for creating mood if not climax.

But what are the lyrics actually about? Well, it's hard to say, particularly as in interviews Matt Flegel said he intended a certain element of twisted humor to them, laughing at the bleakness of the world, almost ridiculous in their grand hyperbole. It certainly shifts the mood of a track like 'Pointless Experience', a song where growing old and dying almost seems like a respite against the pain of existence, and it makes lyrics like 'poisonous gas is a pointless experience' almost funny in a gallows humour sort of way. And when viewed in that context, the wry commentary adds an odd flavour to Viet Cong - still bleak, to be sure, but it's the sort of bleakness that's so banal and bigger than oneself you can't help but laugh at one's insignificance in the face of it all. That and the overall production style reminded me a fair bit of another Canadian indie band Ought who dropped their debut last year - but where Ought was trying to find something to hold onto against the impending loss of control, Viet Cong are just along for the ride, with the bemused expressions of those who can't quite believe what's happening. It gives the toxic relationship of 'March Of Progress' or the lurid insanity of 'Bunker Buster' or the pragmatism of 'Silhouettes' added context - when faced with things one can't - or won't - understand - a way you can deal with it is taking a step back and adding context, like the bigger picture in the face of anxiety of a world collapsing on 'Continental Shelf'. Hell, even the closing track 'Death' is almost resigned to the inevitable end - because really, what else is he going to do?

Now one could make the argument the juxtaposition of such self-awareness can undercut some of the tension of the record - and I'd completely agree with that, because that's the point of gallows humour. Furthermore, it fits with the instrumental flavour of the album - a thin point of respite against crushing rhythms or anarchic waves of noise. That said, I won't deny that it also means Viet Cong doesn't quite have the same immediate punch as other albums, which can mean it can take a lot of listens to really sink in. And I will say that some of the more outright abrasive moments, particularly from the guitars, didn't always click with me, especially considering they can occasionally feel included for the sake of the sound rather than the overall cohesion of the songs. But at the end of the day, I really dug the self-titled debut from Viet Cong, and it's getting a very strong 7/10 from me. Definitely take the time to check this out if you're a fan of post-punk or of Women, because this is very much up that alley, but if you're in the mood for some noisy post-punk that's more thought-provoking than you might expect, definitely give this a listen.

No comments:

Post a Comment