Starting a band is easy; an actual career in indie rock is a much tougher proposition these days. Financial success seems harder and harder to come by and saying something new within the context of guitar based music might be even more difficult. Maybe you get to express yourself, but what if you think music should aspire to something other than being a vehicle for your feelings? You’ll probably just get compared to bands who ceased to exist two decades ago. Viet Cong have clearly thought about this a lot in their brief period of existence, most of which has been spent relentlessly touring in support of last year’s introductory EP “Cassette”. But don’t let the deadpan song titles like “Pointless Experience” and “March of Progress” throw you: the Calgary band’s self-titled debut projects unbridled passion, creativity, and possibilities while speaking in a presumably dead language of post-punk.
Their mission is not altogether different from that of Women, the short-lived and sorely missed indie deconstructionists in which half of Viet Cong previously served. Women existed as a band that knew its impending expiration date, operating in secrecy and driven by entropy. Their albums felt like black boxes, reports of turbulence and panic captured on grimy tape in Chad VanGaalen’s basement. They were statues during live performances, with the exception of their final show, which ended in a violent fist fight. If not necessarily a pop band on “Cassette”, Viet Cong initially distinguished themselves with more extroverted, less intriguing impulses—there were snappy radio rock songs and Bauhaus covers amongst the typically stonefaced gestures, things that would lead you to believe that the death of guitarist Chris Reimer at 26 might have dissuaded them from trying to carry the same heft of Women.
A year later, Viet Cong are a cohesive and confident unit that goes even further into inaccessibility than Women, confrontational in a way that reaches out to an audience rather than turning inward. The sound that begins Viet Cong most closely resembles someone trying to punch their way out of a coffin. The record ends with an 11-minute song called “Death”. It is also a self-titled debut from a band named Viet Cong. So whether you’re familiar with their past or you’re just here because you’ve been hearing things about this band, everyone is getting the same first impression: That of a very serious rock record that won’t offer too many cuddly points of self-disclosure. So, in the moments where Viet Cong do reveal themselves, you might want to pay attention.
Two important instances occur during “March of Progress”, Viet Cong’s astonishing six-minute centerpiece. Matt Flegel could be mocking the speculative nature of music criticism and predictable, tiresome process of “proving” one’s self in dazed, layered harmony: “Your reputation is preceding you/ We’re all sufficiently impressed/ And this incessant march of progress/ Can guarantee our sure success.” It proves Viet Cong are self-aware, have a subzero sense of humor to match their environs, and recognize those two qualities might combine to give the impression that this isn’t music that is meant to be enjoyed. That’s when the double-time beat kicks in, and Viet Cong make a sprightly, major-key sprint towards a dead halt. There’s mastery of form, instrumental prowess, and on a record that thrives on unpredictability, “March of Progress” elicits the most unexpected response—that was fun.
Viet Cong is full of knowing moments and reference points—the fact that it could pass for Guided by Voices (“Continental Shelf”), Wolf Parade (“Silhouettes”), and This Heat (take your pick) is enough of an accomplishment. It is not exactly a meta work, however. Viet Cong are just a band that’s unusually obsessed with the mechanics and process of their given trade. While their ashen sonics and rigid demeanor is liable to have them labeled as post-punk, they’re also industrial in a literal sense. Flegel’s vocals are those of a foreman, authoritative, commanding and prodding. Guitars often sound dissolved in caustic chemicals; instruments contort themselves and interlock to achieve forward momentum. It’s music that works very, very hard to express a perverse hometown pride you often see used to sell spring water or thermal outerwear —you might not want to brave Calgary’s bleak winters, but the way Viet Cong captures its forbidding chill and placid, sprawling beauty sure make it seem like a good place to be a post-punk band.
Most of all, this is a record of exertion, where the physical investment in live performance is meant to stimulate creativity, those demoralizing tours inspiring smarter use of the studio. Viet Cong’s favorite tactic of disorientation is inversion—laying high-register, melodic bass patterns over rhythmic, disassociated six string rubble, EQ’ing percussion so it sounds like a drum machine being run through a guitar amp. And Flegel’s most passionate vocal performances deliver his most disillusioned lyrics. Viet Cong has only seven tracks and more than half don’t pass the five minute mark. Yet all are heavy, ingenious contraptions.
This is also a record of conflict and contrast, in particular, a winter war. The sensations of Viet Cong are specific to being bundled up in the arctic, where one’s body feels suffocating warmth and blistering cold all at once. During “Newspaper Spoons”, shrieking guitars morph into woozy synths, the effect is like watching a bloodied hand sink into a bucket of ice. There are many times when Viet Cong reveal psych-pop as their true north—clean guitars chime, harmonies are stacked in odd, almost madrigal-like forms, and Flegel’s lyrics favor surreal imagery of liquid gold, radiated primates and telepathically “bending newspaper spoons.” But it’s psychedelia rendered in black and white; after three minutes of vertiginous percussion, a section of stereo-panned, autoharp-like riffs and stoned folk harmonies recall a grayscale Animal Collective ca. Feels. Meanwhile, “Continental Shelf” flips Echo and the Bunnymen’s “big music”, attempting to have the sky crash down to earth rather than reaching for it.
These are the kind of pleasures of which Viet Cong is composed; its emotions are otherwise proprietary to Flegel. Viet Cong do not write love songs, their politics are a mystery. They have no commentary on what it means to be alive in 2015. But to hear this kind of commitment to craft, particularly rock music that maintains the vibrancy and tension of four musicians playing instruments in the same room while testing its boundaries, Viet Cong questions what it means to care about the creation of art, if not necessarily its effect on its audience. Most of Viet Cong was written during a brutal tour across what the band described as “shit earth” that tested their resolve and was liable to make the same old question the center of discussion—why do this, again?
Viet Cong is filled with moments that tap into the primal impulses of true post-punk—think of the first time someone puts together a couple of effects pedals and tries to make a guitar sound like something other than a guitar, of falling out with the sonic strictures of punk rock by embracing the philosophical freedom. Towards the end of “March of Progress”, Flegel yelps, “What is the difference between love and hate?”, and it can be taken as an allusion to the metaphysical conflict at its center; Viet Cong pits the romanticism of a newly enrolled philosophy major against the cynicism of the dropout who still hangs around the library to tell the fresh-faced youngsters it’s all bullshit. The album doesn’t settle the argument, it’s still as volatile and spirited as it was 30 years ago. The important thing is that people are still willing to have the conversation.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1CgUwor