opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
The story of the short-lived, long-shadowed Calgary band Women ends sadly, with toxic infighting, an onstage brawl, an indefinite hiatus, and finally the unexpected and untimely death of guitarist Chris Reimer in 2012. It’s a sobering trajectory in any case, but adding salt to the wound is, of course, the fact that Women were one of the best rock bands of the last two decades. Tenser than No Age, heavier than Deerhunter, and less abstract than These New Puritans, their three closest contemporaries in indie rock, Women’s only externally apparent fault was these four dudes’ obnoxious assumption of their search-engine-confounding bandname. They turned out at least one stone-cold classic with their sophomore effort, 2010’s all-too-accurately-titled Public Strain, a collection of charred post-punk that shows off the many assets of a versatile band with an astonishing range: now expressionless, now heartrending; now punishingly noisy, now gently melodic; now artily cerebral, now ass-kickingly physical. Rock music was in a pretty sorry state when Women emerged, but they were a band I could always point to as a beacon of hope. The void they left behind remains palpable and unrepaired. In 2013, word circulated – shortly followed by a cassette – that the disbanded act’s formidable rhythm section, drummer Mike Wallace and bassist Matt Flegel, had regrouped under the marginally more Googleable name Viet Cong, drawing guitarist-keyboardist Scott Munro and guitarist Daniel Christiansen (whom Flegel and Wallace knew from their days in a Black Sabbath cover group) into the fold. And lo, expectations were born.
It seems inevitable that the conversation around Viet Cong will involve the defunct band that shares 50% of its members – it’s the sort of thing critics have a hard time resisting – but is illuminating? No use in holding a new and distinct band up to an impossible standard. Except it turns out that it’s very productive to discuss Viet Cong in relation to Women, not because they share members or history but because Viet Cong are a really fucking great band in ways that few have been since the dissolution of Women. They share more than members: for one thing, debut LP Viet Cong is, like Women, immensely rewarding for serious fans of rock music because they have voraciously consumed, internalized, and recast much of the genre’s history. Viet Cong is nominally a post-punk record, but it’s also readily apparent that it wouldn’t exist at all without krautrock, Nuggets, noise, indie rock of the 1990s and early 2000s, NYC no wave, or the bluesy inflections of ‘70s psych and art-rock. That sentence was probably a boring one for you to read, but believe me when I say that, unlike bands who invite the pejorative “record collector music” (hi, Horrors), Viet Cong don’t make music that devolves into a round of Spot The Influence so much as music that feels like some kind of prophesied ultimate culmination of the things that preceded it. They march in a straight line out of the past and into the present rather than dragging the past into the present and reenacting its sticking points. For example, Flegel’s got more than a passing trace of Spencer Krug in his yelpy, nervous, and mildly theatrical tenor, which of course means it’s got a lot of Bowie, Iggy, and T. Rex in it, too. But these don’t read like calculated evocations so much as natural evolutions. As with Public Strain, one listens to Viet Cong and, rather than thinking in terms of references, feels in terms of associations.
Like Deerhunter, No Age, and Women, Viet Cong’s music is also unusual in that it operates like and will be received as rock music, yet, when broken down into parts, looks nothing like conventional rock music. “Pointless Experience” feels like a standard post-punk number, but pay closer attention and notice that its hook is composed largely from looped feedback; at 1:40, the scrappy clutter of the verses is brushed aside and the thick, dark bass blurts and clipped vocal samples that are its building blocks become visible. The next track, “March Of Progress,” is similarly constructed, an object of droning noise that’s been gutted and sculpted into the shape of rhythm. Opener “Newspaper Spoons” wastes no time in pummeling the listener into submission with a battering-ram drum track that lends a sense of throttling urgency even to the sparkling guitars of its outro. Indeed, Wallace’s drums are in many ways the MVP on Viet Cong even though they’re implied more than they are directly perceptible: shrouded in white noise, the actual sound of their impact is frequently excavated altogether, so that his beats are transformed into points of concentrated noise, fully integrated in the band’s general greyscale turbulence. Viet Cong boast a rich arsenal of textures, which they’ve funneled, or sometimes wrestled, into post-punk-shaped confines. It’s work so gripping and uncommon, even a listener weaned on the four-minute revived post-punk anthems of a Bloc Party or an Arctic Monkeys will no doubt be enthralled by the eleven-minute closer “Death,” on which Viet Cong pull out every last damn stop.
Their approach works because the songs are so excellently written than they’d be praiseworthy coming from a less capable, more pedestrian group. Flegel’s mesmerizingly charismatic; on “Silhouettes,” over piano, cacophonous guitars, and a bed of thin, watery synths on loan from “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” he lets rip with a chilling lupine howl, the rawest and most immediate piece of vocal work on a rock song since the final chorus of EMA’s “So Blonde”; gloomy moaning gives way to visceral snarls and then again into conversational monotone before repeating the cycle on the album’s finest song, the absurdly catchy “Continental Shelf,” which sounds like Wolf Parade covering the Chameleons. Flegel’s lyrics are also exceptionally sharp, each song strewn with instantly memorable, quotable lines, from offhand poetry to shout-along-ready mantras (from “Continental Shelf: “Suffocating, suffocating! …Violated, violated!”) to dark-witted zingers worthy of Nick Cave (from “Pointless Experience”: “If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die”). These comparatively straightforward frontman maneuvers lend emotional heft and a focal point to Viet Cong’s unsettlingly abstracted and uncommonly physical songs, which is another way of saying that Viet Cong can do it all – and they can, they really can. A-