Albums, Music, The Revue — March 26, 2018 at 5:10 am

Preoccupations – ‘New Material’ (album review)

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If one was to start a list of the best bands of the 2010s, Calgary’s Preoccupations would be near – if not at – the top of the list. Their debut album, Viet Cong, when they were known as Viet Cong, was a viscerally raw and emotionally deep ode to a fallen friend. After a name change, their self-titled sophomore album was similarly dark and foreboding, but they explored the depths of their own psychology and the demons that linger deep in the subconscious. With their third album, New Material, they complete the trilogy with a record that situates the self at its heart and around it orbits the influences and chaos that shapes her. That shapes us. The result is another memorable output that shakes the listener right to her core.

Unlike their two previous albums, New Material is sonically more melodic and even lighter, but front man Matt Flegel’s poignant and foreboding lyricism remains. The hypnotic “Antidote”, for instance, is like a hallucinogenic, as Mike Wallace’s throbbing percussion, Scott Munro’s shallow synths, and Daniel Christiansen’s trembling guitar line create a harrowing atmosphere. Flegel’s loopy and mechanical vocals mirror his lyrics about the information overload that destroys and the narcissism that governs us.

“Trying to untangle the map,
Everything slips right through your shaking hands.
Whether we ask for it or not
To live is to suffer again and again.”

Some follow like sheep with no mind of their own. Their only duty is to obey, which is depicted on the eerie and trance-like “Doubt”. This act of obedience can only be interpreted as “Compliance”, which is an even bleaker, industrial-inspired track made gloomier as an instrumental. Methodically, Munro’s, Flegel’s, and Christiansen’s instruments collide and then intensify to create a futuristic soundscape that could have been on Bladerunner 2049. But like the movie, one thing holds everything from succumbing to the whims of one master – a glimmer of hope in humanity that is represented by the echo in Wallace’s rhythms.

Preoccupations, however, are masters of contrast to tell their stories. On “Disarray”, they offer a beacon of light into their darkness – at least musically. Flegel’s vocals are uncharacteristically light and intimate while Christiansen’s guitar adopts a dazzling, Slowdive-esque, shoegaze tone. The rhythms and synth, meanwhile, reach exhilarating and even breathtaking levels. It all feels like a dream, but the story is a nightmare. “Everything you’ve been told is a lie”, Flegel solemnly informs us about the “masquerade” we call our lives.

These lies are further accentuated on the gripping and stark “Manipulation”. The song reveals Preoccupations at their very best, where they use subtlety to evoke powerful emotions of anger, disappointment, and pain. In doing so, they allow to understand how those who reign “charm and betray, ruin and replay, seduce and deceive, destroy and repeat” to advance their causes. And we are their minions until we open our eyes. Yet, on the roaring, Joy Division-esque “Espionage”, the manipulation is ingrained into our psyche and morals. We are told we are valuable, which is true until we become expendable and don’t fit the norm.

“The chances seemed so slim.
They will never get out of this trench alive
With fingers that feel so cut and dry.
Resign into the fact in force and back-and-forth
And back the call responding to social espionage.
Zealotry without a cause
And blame you behind your back.”

Still we strive for acceptance, as revealed on the mysterious and enchanting “Decompose”. Surgical in its execution, Preoccupations calmly build the intensity and drama with Wallace’s war-like drumming leading the charge. The song is borderline ravishing for the Calgary-based quartet, yet it is all an illusion. Despite its unexpected beauty, beneath it is the story of a dying world and a dying species. Of a people who desire to leave behind “legacies” at the expense of everything else.

Yet for Preoccupations, whether they believe this world exists or if value truly can be measured, their legacy has been firmly established. They are masters of psychology and sociology – telling history and the state of today’s world through different prisms and perspectives while playing on our deepest emotions, fears, and hopes. Telling us things we need to hear before it’s too late, and telling us to wake up. To open our eyes before we decide to wage war on behalf of a maniac at the cost of our true selves.

New Material is out now via Jagjaguwar and Flemish Eye. Streaming and purchase links are here or go directly to Bandcamp. Their tour begins April 13th in Toronto and continues across North America and then Europe for the remainder of the spring and into early summer. Dates and information are available here.

Preoccupations are Matt Flegel (vocals/bass), Scott Munro (guitar/synth), Daniel Christiansen (guitar), and Mike Wallace (drums).

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