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Canadians do postpunk better than most these days. The best case in point: Viet Cong, the latest matchup assembled from the ashes of the now-deceased indie rock outfit Women, compiling bassist and lead singer Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace with the who's who of the underground noise rock scene in Calgary. On a personal level, Viet Cong's eponymous debut album has me really excited like no other indie rock band has in quite some time. The past five years in the music scene, or whatever small world I orbit around, has been really special and groundbreaking, but this band is in the makings to be my favorite up-and-comers. Chugging bass, pressurized drums and dry vocals lift up the hurtling noise that would simply destroy the competition in a live setting. There's a ferocity and confidence in the way these dudes play. No matter how much the sound of the independent music scene has bled into the mainstream, there's a slim chance that artists in the Top 40 understand a song and then break that idea apart quite like this band does.
I already believe that this album is one of the best of 2015, and January isn't even done yet. While not varied, the songwriting is strong because rarely do the songs sit still. The album's genius is couched between wintry sounds and thick noise with a slight stroke towards the opulent. Dizzying opener "Newspaper Spoons" pummels the listener with cacophonous drums that barrel forward while the vocal and screeching guitar wiz by, and "March of Progress", which provides a hair-raising end to its desolate runtime with swaths of plucked guitar and a siren call that introduces a crackling, fast-paced rollick through the early '80s. Like most of my reviews, the comparisons get out of control; Joy Division, Pop Group, and Public Image Ltd. make appearances, but the rawness of the production elevates their sound into something much more progressive.
The music does have its qualms, coinciding with those moments where the sounds the band balances becomes something more conventional. "Bunker Buster" is great, but its more tangible greatness is showcased when the song shifts and changes moods, not in extended sections where the sound runs in place. Another case can be found in "Pointless Experience", when Viet Cong play a loud, moody but mostly straightforward postpunk number where the lyrics distracts from the performance. The drums move effortlessly around the words "Another endeavor failed to keep the necessary papers for evacuation/Previously synchronized with cold and cruel arithmetic/We're desperately debilitated/If we're lucky, we'll get old and die" to keep the chorus lightweight, and while the lyrics sell the story of the band as dystopian punk rockers, despite Flegel's best efforts with hard consonants and controlled breathing, the chorus feels heavier than it should. Themes of futurology and surveillance complete with Newspeak is relevant to understanding Viet Cong, but when their other choruses are all pulled off so effortlessly, the listener just wants another gooey chorus to savor.
"Continental Shelf" serves as the best example of the band meeting obscurity and accessibility halfway. Structurally, the song plays it straight, but the arrangement of reverb and static helps to build tension before the cloud-clearing coos bring in the clubby chorus. The song is powerful and visceral, pointed to the darkness but settling in a place right above the gloom. Every element is essential, and that leaves me breathless. As the album winds down, "Silhouettes" starts at breakneck speed with sharp guitar jabs and a thin layer of synths flesh it out and build pressure, though the song never finds a true release, even if Flegel's sticky falsetto in the chorus feels like the perfect surrender. Under the pressure, these two songs come alive. Not once do the band's moves sound inconsequential, whether the spooky chorus in "Pointless Experience" breaks off into a brisk rocker, or when "Bunk Buster" acts like a lightning rod and explodes with a shout-along chorus as sparkling guitars burst into flame. The rhythm section provides a fluid backbone that allow songs to be straight yet formless, changing tempo and moving into different sections with little to no difficulty. The MVP, though, is producer Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck, who provides the band with an oppressive sound that make the drums sound gargantuan and the paint-stripping guitars ear-bleedingly
If the 11 minutes aren't a big enough clue, "Death" is a man's journey to death during his last moments on the earth (which can be seen a tribute to Women's guitarist Chris Reimer, who died in 2012). While the few minutes feel conventional by psych-rock standards, the instrumental section kicks in, similar to InnerSpeaker-era Tame Imapala, until the wandering guitar lines get lost in the increasingly heavy sounds of reverb and drums, which transforms into a muddy dirge with thrashing guitar, before running to the finish line with a shift towards math rock. The struggle towards death is violent, desperate, frightening. The song is a stunning piece of work.
By ending the album with a desperate, blood-curdling shriek, Flegel allows the album to come full circle. His cathartic last call recalls the instrumental chaos demonstrated in the previous 35 minutes. For as much insanity as this album has brought, it's a balanced disorder. Then the listener remembers those clunky moments in "Pointless Experience" and "Bunker Buster", and the excitement is no longer so fevered. Still, listen to "March of Progress" with the percept of what this album might be saying about itself as it continues to bear the torch of vital postpunk music, and the power of the album becomes engrossing. Lost in the ecstasy of the beautiful sounds of the song: "We built the buildings/and they're built to break". Bring on the destruction.