Preoccupations Exorcise Pioneering Post-Punk Ghosts on New Album
“I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables,” James Murphy poses to an unspecified subject in LCD Soundsystem’s epochal “Losing My Edge.” That’s not entirely the case with Preoccupations, the post-punk quartet from Calgary whose effusive frequency of output has retained a large following unencumbered by their recent name change, but there is a notable lack of sheet metal guitars that were so ubiquitous on their – at the time – self-titled debut Viet Cong. Their influence is firmly grounded in predecessors of the genre who set the standard: New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, et cetera. If anything, the increased reliance on synthesizers bridges the generation gap into one seamless line segment.
Drawing similarities to ‘80s era post-punk is not without its downfalls. Matt Flegel’s apocalyptic rhetoric takes a turn for the coldly logical, and his depressing analysis of the artistic pursuit as a means of monetary gain makes for some meaningful critique, yet the lyricism plunges into weakly written territory. There’s an infamous moment on New Order’s “Sooner Than You Think” where Bernard Sumner sings the laughably stupid rhyme, “To buy a drink that is so much more reasonable/I think I’ll go there when it gets seasonable.” It’s impossible not to think on that wordplay when listening to Flegel sing the line, “You’re an impossibility/Fading into obscurity.” Preoccupations set their sights on the music industry’s confines and futility in the face of the artist, often with strong results. It is only on occasion, such as with “Zodiac,” that they dip into Low-Life's writing acumen. “Anxiety” sells the hard truths of working as a professional musician in the current cultural climate to a much better tune, telling of those attempting to make an honest living off of their dedicated craft “deteriorating to great acclaim” and the insatiable fan base that allows those very musicians to vanish due to the public’s “jaded need for astonishment.”
For a rare moment, “Monotony” features a languid vocal approach from Flegel rather than his typical shout, unmistakably mirroring the timbre and delivery of Richard Butler from The Psychedelic Furs. Noticing the 11-minute runtime of “Memory,” you might go in expecting a spiritual sequel to the previous album’s closer “Death,” however what we have here is not nearly as behemoth, yet just as labyrinthine, featuring two distinct sections to the song. Flegel plucks a bass line in its second movement so fueled by its treble register that it cannot help but be likened to that of Peter Hook’s oeuvre, while joined by pleasant guest vocals from Dan Boeckner of fellow Canucks Wolf Parade. “Sense” and “Forbidden” bleed into each other to make one slipshod whole, devastatingly bowing out early JUST as an incredible 7/4 jam gets going at the very end, extinguishing the fire at the first sign of spark. Momentum picks right back up with “Stimulation,” the album’s best track – and that’s not just because it’s essentially the sister track to Viet Cong’s “Silhouettes.” They sound invigorated for once; a sense of urgency is afoot, as if they are chasing down a hurricane rather than being swept up by it. Winding guitar lines from Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen are back and in full effect, and Mike Wallace gets a moment to shine finally after being relatively stifled throughout the rest of the album, or at least reduced to drum pads.
Preoccupations makes some revisions to the original design. There are times when missing the abundance of manic guitar interplay made commonplace in the band’s prior years is easy; it is no stretch to say that the new LP is a far cry from Cassette, but at the end of the day, the Calgary natives are still serving up their idiosyncratic soundtrack fitting for a scorched Earth or a William Gibson novel.