Once upon a time in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, there was a rock group called Women. One of the most inventive rock groups of recent times, Women transcended their post-punk influences to create a sound that was at once haunting, cold and otherworldly but playful. Women sadly met an untimely demise, followed by the tragic death of their guitarist and creative mastermind Chris Reimer, putting a complete end to that project. But from the ashes of Women rose Viet Cong (later renamed to Preoccupations), featuring the gruff-voiced former Women bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace. During the course of their albums, Viet Cong/Preoccupations took a more straightforward, though no less visceral, approach to post-punk and industrial rock, seemingly moving chronologically from psychedelic and melodic art punk (Cassette, 2014) to late-70s angular and wiry industrial post-punk, heavily influenced by the likes of This Heat (Viet Cong, 2015) to the early-80s, more synth-driven coldwave (Preoccupations, 2016). With the aptly titled New Material, Preoccupations continue to incrementally advance their sound, expanding on the elements of coldwave, moving further into a synth-driven sound, while still retaining their industrial influences. While they’re not particularly trying to advance the genre, they work well within its framework in continuing to create solid consistently good, cynical and nihilistic, post-punk.
Similarly to their last album, all the songs on the album have one-word titles, which convey some fairly negative, dreary connotations – titles like “Decomposed”, “Disarray” and “Manipulation” give an idea of the kind of lyrical themes contained within. Even with the album title, they continue to make it clear the aesthetic they are going for – a grey, ambiguous, emotionally blank and monolithic one. It’s also their most straightforwardly-structured album, feeling the most like just a collection of songs, with no 11-minute epics or one-minute interludes this time around. And it’s a shame, because the longest song on here, “Antidote”, is far from one of the highlights: it starts promisingly, with one of the most impassioned vocal performances from Flegel, his drill sergeant bark turning into a venomous growl during the chorus of sorts, as the rolling, thumping percussion and bass pulse guide it through, but sadly it plateaus halfway through, with the repeated refrain droning continuously, gaining little from its repetition. Likewise, some of the slower numbers tend to drag – “Manipulation” isn’t bad, but it is one of the more overly ‘grey’ songs on here and is a little too heavy-handed with its nihilism to be very enjoyable. It is interesting to note, though, the way the song appears to use the same drum pattern of Women’s last released song, “Bullfight” – a rare call-back from this new band to the one before that spawned it. In the record’s penultimate position, “Doubt” is a slow, dreary crawl towards nowhere in particular, with churning, almost diseased-sounding synths, but on the whole, it fails to properly capture the attention.
The album gets off to a fine start, though, with hollow clattering percussion and the cold synth-laden soundscape of “Espionage”. A churning bass underpins a tense, nocturnal, atmosphere, supported by the steady, propulsive, Motorik-like drums, with the call and response vocals on the chorus adding to the urgent and fiery feel of the song. “Decompose” continues with a more ambiguous tone, underpinned by the pulsing bass notes and the repeatedly strummed, watery, almost Oriental-sounding figure. “Disarray” may be the group’s most straightforward post-punk song thus far, with a pretty, melodic, yet bittersweet guitar riff. Even then, the song uses an odd time signature in its refrain, giving it a somewhat unbalanced feel. In the pre-choruses, the band nail the kind of bittersweet, pitying tone they’ve been going for on their work thus far, emphasised by the line “everything you’ve ever been told is a lie” and the way the guitar chords lightly swell around it.
The second half kicks off with the aforementioned “Antidote”. Next, “Solace” picks things up again with more tight, rhythmically propulsive instrumentation, calling back to the anxious nocturnal atmosphere of opener “Espionage”, with brittle guitars and synth stabs ringing out like flashes of white light. And then, it all comes down to the album’s epic, show-stopping closer “Compliance”. Alluded to lyrically in “Doubt” and sonically kind of a continuation of that song, “Compliance” ends the record on a high, with a somewhat threatening but tonally ambiguous, slow-burning instrumental. It opens with screeching, horror-esque guitar noise, before the droney, brittle guitars kick off a tense and slow procession, occasionally to the point of audibly clipping. Without lyrics to add meaning, the song makes for an ominously unresolved end to the record – it could be perceived as quietly hopeful or even more crushing, like a procession towards a sunset that turns out to be a nuclear explosion.
New Material sees Preoccupations making more songs about death and decay. Though perhaps their most straightforward and in some ways streamlined record, they manage to lose fairly little in the process. The eight songs on offer here are mostly solid, only made slightly weaker than previous releases due to the slight progression in sound and comparatively little variation throughout. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. Having somewhat painted themselves into a corner with the continuous recycling of ideas, only time will tell if they can work towards transcending their influences. But either way, it’s still a quality record, and if you’re looking for a healthy dose of bitter, nihilistic post-punk, this should make for a fairly good way to spend 36 minutes.