Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is New Material, the new album from Preoccupations.
Over the course of three albums, Preoccupations (FKA Viet Cong) have briskly established a signature sound from which all their songs grow. Rather than this consistency being a crutch, though, the Alberta quartet’s reliance on dark lyrical themes, airtight post-punk rhythm parts, and staccato, ruminating guitar lines has allowed them to form a cohesive aesthetic that remains from album to album, even as their stylistic choices bolden. The band’s latest record, New Material, takes a direct cue from its title, invoking disparate influences previously unheard on Preoccupations records and reframing them within the context of their more measured, consistent approach.
Preoccupations have been almost antithetical to the tenets of traditional post-punk styles throughout their brief tenure as a band. Instead of brashness and in-your-face swagger, singer and bassist Matt Flegel delivers his words with a hidden moroseness, a filter always inserted between his world and the listener’s. Guitarists Daniel Christiansen and Scott Munro are constantly in lockstep, bouncing off one another with precision and deliberation, while drummer Mike Wallace’s groove are always in the pocket, lingering adjacent to Flegel’s bass waiting for the perfect moment to strike with a well placed fill. A lot of Preoccupations’ music works like this. The songs build and the noise slowly grows from a place of natural evolution, walls of guitar cascading above a backdrop of synths, drums, and vocals. It all makes sense, it all fits without ever becoming sterile and homogeneous. It’s math rock without the obnoxious spotlight on skill and business, post-punk without ever descending into mayhem.
New Material takes this subtle evasion of genre and amplifies it multiple times over, introducing elements of glam, krautrock, and straight ahead pop into the fold. “It’s an ode to depression. To depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred,” explains Flegel in a band statement announcing the album. And while lyrically, New Material features the darkest depths Flegel has ever reached, it stands in stark contrast to the band’s evolved sound, which glimmers with a sarcastic sort of hope, littered with multi-part harmonies, shiny guitars, and unabashed ‘80s drums.
“Espionage,” the album’s first track, builds off an airy synth line and propulsive drums, an uptempo song that serves as its own enemy when Flegel sings, “The chances seem so slim/ That we’ll ever get outta this stretch of life.” If the words weren’t so cuttingly honest and morose, it’d seem as if Flegel was in on the joke, laughing at this lighter direction his band has shifted towards. But the weightiness of the juxtaposition between these two dueling elements makes for a fascinating listen and the best encapsulation of what this band can achieve when stripped to its essential traits.
New Material is, like much of Preoccupations’ work, a battle against itself, a struggle to push through anger, resentment, and depression in hopes of finding something brighter on the other side. Never before has the band actualized this notion in the play between lyrics and instrumentation; on previous records, the drums, guitars, synths, and bass were in the trenches right there with Flegel, egging him on in a downcast wallow, emphasizing man’s hopelessness and our inability to escape ourselves. On the new record, though, the band encounters a fork in the road and splits it.
“Doubt” sounds like a track meant for the MTV-era, a U2 b-side if the latter was raised on Johnny Rotten instead of the Bible. “Antidote” takes a drum loop that sounds like a scratched Toto CD and loops it around a pulsing bass line as Flegel indulges in a half-rap vocal part. It’s unexplored terrain for the band, but couldn’t be mistaken as anything but a Preoccupations record. This album is a different series in the same medium, a brighter lit angle of the same image. If Viet Cong and Preoccupations were a sort of blue period for the band, New Material is a carefully composed water color. But, like all Preoccupations music, it’s doused in a heavy, already dried, dark-as-night black.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.