[Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye; 2015]
Around ten years ago, one of the biggest sounds to emerge was what I would call “imitation post-punk.” Bands like Bloc Party, Interpol, and The Bravery put out entertaining albums that borrowed heavily from the post-punk sounds of the late 70s and early 80s. A dash of Gang of Four angular guitars here, a smidge of PiL’s haunting synths there, and a catchy melody to boot – you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a nostalgia-based album. While it was fun to listen to these bands playing a game of “Where’d they steal that from?” the whole movement also felt a bit empty and inauthentic, much in the same way a re-release of Boo-Berry (now with more corn syrup!) didn’t sit well with cereal-aficionados.
My beef sprung from the mere definition of post-punk. Allmusic.com defines the genre as “…a more adventurous and arty form of punk, no less angry or political but often more musically complex and diverse…forged into more experimental territory.” None of these early 2000s revivalists harnessed that experimental spirit; they opted to simply duplicate it. Many bands have come along since relegating to these same imitative ways, which has made the arrival of Viet Cong and their innovative take on post-punk all the more refreshing.
I’m not going to suggest that Viet Cong’s self-titled debut doesn’t borrow from definitive post-punk bands, but they’ve found a way to meld these influences into an audacious blend that is refreshing and unprecedented. On “Pointless Experience” woozy guitars conjure up memories of My Bloody Valentine, the bounding bassline burrows from the underbelly of Gang of Four, and the dense white space of The Jesus and Mary Chain attempts to drown out the shouts of front-man Matt Flegel. Despite these obvious inspirations, Viet Cong take these various hues and arrange them upon the musical canvas into something that is wholly new and dynamic.
Upon first listen, I found myself constantly perking up, surprised by the well-thought out unexpected changes throughout the album. It’s the music equivalent of a “Twin Peaks” episode – mysterious, bizarre, and dark, with a shocking twist just around the corner. It’s a lively listen that will keep your interest throughout due to the band’s ability to write eight varied tracks that, despite their deviations, all feel like they emerged from the same insular womb. A song can be manic, melodic, and maleficent all within the span of five minutes. Album highlight “Continental Shelf” is the best example of this, a song that keeps the listener staring into the murky waters from start to finish, waiting again for that memorable chorus to float back to the surface.
While this is Viet Cong’s first full-length album, I’m probably being a bit misleading about the band’s experience. Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace first cut their teeth in their influential band Women, who broke up when bandmate Christopher Reimer died at the age of 26 from a heart complication. Ghosts of both the former band and Reimer’s memory lurk in the shadows of the album. The depressing mood is matched only by its morbid lyrics that continually find themselves focusing back upon questions of life and death. On “Continental Shelf” Flegel muses “When all is said and done/ You’ll be around until you’re gone,” and on “Pointless Experience” he presents the darkly uplifting mantra “If we’re lucky we’ll get old and die.”
The album ends with a 10-minute prog rumination, aptly titled “Death.” The song begins as a sprawling dirge, slowly building toward the aggressive outro, a jolting 5-minute bolt of pulsating drums, crashing cymbals, and shrieking guitars. Over all the bedlam Flegal howls his vision of the end, “Accelerated fall / An orbital sprawl/Expanded and swollen.” If this is the band’s take on “going out with a bang,” then the Grim Reaper is in for one hell of a death knell.