Under their previous incarnation as Viet Cong, Preoccupations‘ 2015 debut album was more than a great album. It was a visceral experience both musically and emotionally. It was raw and cathartic, resonating with Joy Division’s industrial and post-punk brilliance. Beneath the reverb-drenched guitars and the thunderous rhythms, however, were four guys releasing the pain that came with losing a dear friend. The sheer force that was Viet Cong made it one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, including gracing our list of 50 Favorite Albums.
Twenty-one months later, Preoccupations return with their self-titled, sophomore album. There is a familiarity that lingers throughout Preoccupations. The dissonant guitars of Daniel Christiansen and Scott Munro, who also plays synths and keys, reverberate throughout. Mike Wallace’s ferocious drumming continues to shine, proving once again why he’s one of music’s great percussionists. Frontman and bassist Matthew Flegel’s vocals, meanwhile, cut sharply through the music with its assertive yet vulnerable tones.
But more than just the sound, the raw emotion of their debut resonates on each song. Preoccupations has the feel of a band still coping with the loss of their friend and tackling their own demons and mortality. This is best evidenced on the sprawling, three-part, 11.5-minute epic, “Memory”.
The song recants moments of the past where things went wrong, but the time for reconciliation has passed. As Flegel sings during the first segment, “You don’t have to say sorry for all the things you failed to do. You don’t need to say sorry for all the times when everything fell through.” These words are reminders of how short time really is. The beautiful transition to a euphoric synth-rock number is spectacular with Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Operators, Divine Fits) taking over lead vocals. The song is transformed from one of remorse to the celebration of one’s life, which is now just a memory.
The entire album is similarly retrospective and introspective. On “Zodiac”, the track is Joy Division-esque with Flegel channeling the anger and hurt that Ian Curtis once brilliantly expressed. And like Curtis, Flegel reveals the internal conflict between success and anonymity. The record’s opener, “Anxiety”, meticulously disembowels us with its slower and more deliberate approach. It’s a brilliant track that takes us deep inside the mind of a person suffering from a quiet, unspoken illness, where even the simple exercise of taking a breath is a cause for celebration.
The mesmerizing “Degraded” showcases the band’s dark, musical aesthetics and sublime songwriting. At times, the Calgary-based quartet sound like they are performing inside an expansive, Gothic cathedral. Other times, they’re in a Manchester dive bar. But throughout the track, Preoccupations take us on a ride. Flegel’s basslines and Wallace’s drumming star on this driving number, which is a critique of the cookie-cutter world we live in and a challenge for people to think for themselves. “Monotony” and the absorbing “Stimulation” echo these themes, but there is a fear that the band, too, have succumbed. A fear that they have become ordinary “workers”, “the observers”, and “the abused” in this charade.
Although the majority of Preoccupations’ songs have been stark and even morbid, the finale, “Fever”, offers a ray of light. More melodic and hypnotic in its approach as synths and keys fill the air, the track has Flegel seeking a way out. Singing about getting away from the disease that has lingered too long and starting anew. It is a fascinating and unexpected ending, indicating that the Calgary quartet is finally ready to move on.
While it may have taken Preoccupations two albums to get to where they are today, they have offered some of the finest music of the past 21 months. There isn’t another band that is as engaging and challenging musically, intellectually, and emotionally. Like Viet Cong, Preoccupations is a powerhouse and one of the year’s best albums. A couple of weeks ago, we wondered out loud if they were one of most important bands to come along in years. We now have our answer – Preoccupations without question IS the most important band to come around in a decade.
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