The band’s press release describes Preoccupations as “a singular, bracing collection that proves what’s punishing can also be soothing, everything can change without disrupting your compass. Your best year can be your worst year at the same time. Whatever sends you flying can also help you land.”
And some of you might have an eye-roll at that – press releases are supposed to sell their products however they can. Or, you might still be reeling, for whatever reason, from the band’s name change from Viet Cong to Preoccupations, despite the fact that the band name has been the least interesting part about them. Or, you might be like me and have a cynical gaze towards the new wave of critically acclaimed post-punk albums that, a lot of the time, just sound like a different strain of 80s’ nostalgia, and never as good as the source material.
But Preoccupations are a smart, talented band, with multiple influences, and the music herein is loaded with the contradictions described by that pull-quote. Look no further than opener and lead single, “Anxiety,” where a darkness shifts into focus after the introducing drift and where the main vocal hook (“Encompassing anxiety”) is a layered drone. But it’s not all dark: there’s a keyboard figure that sounds like moonlight coming in through the floorboard cracks, even if that little melody crashes into a cadence of industrial clamor. It’s stuff like this that distinguishes Preoccupations from their contemporaries: whereas bands like Protomartyr and Savages tend to operate in shades of grey, Preoccupations speaks in a monochromatic tongue, which, in addition to translating to more colour, also means albums that are not as wearying.
Similarly, on centerpiece “Memory,” the band introduces a new pile-driving drum pattern 3-minutes in. It’sphysically bracing from the get-go, before the pattern begins to accelerate. But the rest of the band eventually come back into the fold, with a riff that provides respite against the rhythm. And that’s to say nothing of the chorused, “You don’t have to say sorry for all the things you failed to do / You don’t have to say sorry for all the times when everything fell through.” Or, there’s “Monotony,” where Matthew Flegel laments one of the greatest evils of the modern world: “The persistence of monotony / Is blowing out the sun / This repetition’s killing you / It’s killing everyone.” There’s no clear solution, but the band press forward in their attack nonetheless, with the slow steamroll of the melodic bass and the steady drum rhythm. The other option – retreat, surrender – is worse in their eyes.
Truthfully, every song is a goodie, except “Sense,” which is a minute of breathing room which won’t kill you to listen to. The other short one, “Forbidden” provides the same result through spacey keyboards and what sounds like airy backing vocals, creating a short, psychedelic experience. There’s the slow but sizable climax of “Degraded” that begins when the machine gun bursts of drums brings the band through the fog (check out how Flegel loses himself when he sings “Abstract thought” in the first verse), or the breakneck speed of the Krautrock rhythm of “Zodiac.” Elsewhere, there’s a pointillist keyboard riff in “Fever” that might be the album’s most melodic hook, delighting in a counterpoint with the other keyboard riff over the song’s sturdy beat.
Is there anything wrong with the album? Well, there’s the issue of the band’s lyrics despite often interesting word choice. It’s not a problem to hear meaningless rhymes like “Cautiously optimistic / Skillfully sadistic / Falsetto echolalia / Falling into mania” (on “Monotony”) when the sonics roll right over them, but it gets tiresome to hear the same imagery of decay shoved in your face when the sonics aren’t there to cover them: “You’re an impossibility / Fading into obscurity”; “There’s nothing left here to compete for / Degrade into a fraction of yourself”; “Tasting the festering forbidden fruit.” And then, there’s the bridge on “Stimulation” where the music dies down and Flegel sings, “There’s nothing you can do because / We’re all dumb inside / All dead inside / All gonna die.” Put it this way, Flegel’s vocals take after Syd Barrett, but his lyrics adopt the annoying nihilism of Roger Waters, but even more exaggerated. Post-punkies do love their death and decay, don’t they? See also: Deerhunter.
Which brings me back to the press release’s description of the album, and the band’s language of contradiction; that’s what’s punishing can also be soothing. “Stimulation” undermines the “revelation” that we’re all dumb and going to die with the lines “Being lead into darkness and it’s alright / Being left in the darkness and it’s alright.” Meanwhile, “Fever” might be the band’s most, um, uplifting, with Flegel repeating the lines “You’re not scared, you’re not scared / Carry your fever away from here” until it’s a mantra. The darkness is very real, ladies and gentlemen. But with rhythms this punishing and hooks that slowly reveal themselves like the ones here, maybe it’s not all bad.