Audio Mixer: Graham Walsh.
The Calgary-based four-piece formerly known as Viet Cong had a name that attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Their poorly chosen moniker -- which referred to the militant Vietnamese political group who were responsible for the death and suffering of thousands in South Vietnam and Cambodia -- overshadowed the rightful praise for their music, an otherwise thoughtful mix of post-punk, noise, and existential dread. In 2015, they switched to Preoccupations, a name that might lack shock value but reflects the nagging obsessions that drive their music perfectly. On their self-titled album -- their second in a row -- they sound different enough to lend artistic as well as moral justification to the change. Like their previous name, the nervy juxtapositions of sounds and attitudes on their previous album sometimes felt like they were trying a little too hard; it may be coincidence, but as Preoccupations, they're less frenetic and more determined. Both Viet Cong and this album feature 11-minute showcases for the strengths of their respective incarnations. "Death" was equally taut and bludgeoning, a ferocious, at times bewildering, testament to Viet Cong's nimble shifts and sheer endurance. Here, "Memory" is just as compelling but prettier and more open-ended, with the band allowing room for ambient passages, melodies that disappear into contrails, a four-on-the-floor beat and a cameo by Dan Boeckner in its sweep. Over the course of Preoccupations, the band couples softer sounds with words that hit hard. The striking bookends "Anxiety" and "Fever" bear song titles that read like causes -- or symptoms -- of their new name, and sound like they broke and reconfigured morose synth-pop in their own image. The rough beauty of these songs and Matt Flegel's voice is oddly moving; unlike many other post-punk-indebted bands who seem content to follow a template, Preoccupations need to make their music complicated, unsettling and life-affirming at the same time. Even though it spans the unfettered rock of "Zodiac" and "Stimulation" as well as the surprisingly danceable "Degraded," Preoccupations is a more coherent, more accessible set of songs that proves this band doesn't need an edgy name to attract the attention they deserve. ~ Heather Phares