This piece was originally published on the 8th of August 2014 by The 405. And, if my memory serves me correctly, this was also the first piece of solo music criticism I wrote for the site. Before this, I had worked on a weekly conversational column with my good friend Rob Wilson, nominally about whatever happened in the music industry that week, but this was my first actual review of a record for The 405. I was recruited to write about cinema, but at this point I wanted to challenge myself by writing critically about an art form that once frustrated me as a writer, starting with a record that no other writer for the site had claimed. That also may have been a key motivating factor behind this piece: I was pissed off that very few publications were covering this neat new band I liked (shit, I guess I legitimately was there before they were cool). In that respect, this review definitely came from the right place. And, on reading it back, I think this was actually pretty solid for a first attempt, even if some of my ticks come across as a bit cringeworthy now.
There’s an uninhibited thing you sometimes get with new artists, when nobody expects anything of them and they’re making music for nobody other than themselves. There can be an audible freedom there that’s viscerally exciting. They may only be finding their way, trying on different guises and generally fucking around, but they’re opening themselves up to listeners. And therein lies a rawness that can strip away any edifice of bullshit you’ve built up around yourself and hit you where it matters. Because it’s honest, yknow? It may not sound immaculate and their different guises may not entirely fit, but that’s okay. It would be kind of boring otherwise. No, an artist’s initial material only has to sound alive, needs to have that intangible Something that makes you sit up and think “holy shit we might have something here,” needs those qualities that can speak to your soul and force actual emotions out of you like ketchup out of a squeezy bottle or something. Fancy technical wizardry can come with time, a soul can’t.
And that’s what Viet Cong’s first EP Cassette has. That uninhibited thing. That intangible Something. A soul. I mean, although Mexican Summer has recently re-released it digitally and on vinyl, Cassette was originally intended as a low key, tour-only release (as a cassette, no less). The band made about two-hundred copies last year and left it behind to work on their first album with Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh, which is due later this year. There’s no pressure on the band in that situation, no real expectation from the audience either, just this liberated abandon within which they can flourish. Granted, vocalist/bassist Matt Flegel hardly sells it when, in an interview with Exclaim, he claimed that he and the band “didn’t really know what [they] were doing,” and dismissed the EP as “pretty ramshackle, […] it kind of bounces from genre to genre.” He’s not wrong, but, for me, it’s that ramshackle nature, the band’s willingness to embrace that they don’t quite know where they’re going, that makes this EP so joyous.
It’s that the haze that initially emerges as ‘Select Your Drone’ suddenly dissipates to reveal something altogether more menacing and violent; it’s that ‘Structureless Design’s’ claustrophobic and kind of monotonous Krautrock pastiche explodes into a liberating deluge of noise that would make HEALTH proud; it’s that the melancholy of ‘Oxygen Feed’ is wrought out of the sort of tremendous racket that made Deerhunter’s Monomania so wonderful. It’s that Cassette’s seven tracks (including a cover of a Bauhaus song) don’t sound at all alike, that the band exhibits a wide range of influences and explores a number of production styles. It’s that they’re trying. This does indeed make for a ramshackle listening experience, but these songs don’t have to work as a cohesive unit as they should on an album. They’re just experiments that establish Viet Cong as a band worth giving a monumental shit about.
Perhaps it’s because, within these experiments, they showcase an impressive instinct which never allows a song to rest, to keep them building and evolving and twisting and turning in ways that are nothing less than compelling. It doesn’t always work amazingly well: rather than a natural progression, ‘Structureless Design’ feels like two songs stuck together with a neat transition in the middle, although it’s still interesting to hear the band trying to blend Krautrock and noise in that way. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that. These experiments also clearly demonstrate that the bands can write hooks, such as ‘Unconscious Melody’s’, that burrow their way into your consciousness. But I think what’s most remarkable about Viet Cong right now is they’ve got all these ideas, these labyrinthine designs, and they’re not afraid to let the listener in on them, even if they’re not entirely successful in realising them all.
And this is where the elephant in the room becomes a lot more interesting. Because, yes, Viet Cong was formed of the vestiges of the sadly departed Women, who were responsible for one of my favourite albums: 2010’s Public Strain. It’s kind of unavoidable; you can’t not bring it up when discussing this EP. The band comprises of Women’s bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace, as well as Chad VanGaalen’s live guitarist Scott Munro and guitarist Danny Christiansen. So, obviously, there is some overlap between the two bands: an indebtedness to 60s and 70s rock and psych, certain guitar tones and little things like that. But the mere existence of this EP, which simultaneously invites listeners in and gets in their face, dispels any fears that Viet Cong will end up being Women-lite (Girls?) or Women 2: Wo Harder or anything like that.
There was something very elusive about Women; they were pigeonholed as post-punk, yet, more often than not, their music had ethereal qualities that would betray that label. I don’t want to call it dreamy, because that’s kind of a crappy adjective, but theirs was often the music of sleep, either projecting dreams or nightmares with a cold reserve. Plus, on Public Strain especially, their music contained a pervasive feeling, even if it’s unfounded, that the band would not emerge from their alcove at the edge of civilisation until their music sounded absolutely perfect to them. Like it was made in complete isolation. Cassette, on the other hand, is the work of a more direct band, one more inclined to say “fuck it” and record a seven track EP, because why not? And, as demonstrated by opening track ‘Throw it Away’, which sounds more like early-XTC or Gang of Four than anything Women ever recorded, this attitude carries over into their music. The first four tracks are especially pertinent in this respect, because they are incredibly immediate, predicated more on pop structures and concepts than art-rock noodling.
So, while Women’s name gives them weight, Viet Cong are very much their own thing and all the more exciting because of that. And if you must take one bullshit buzzword away from this review, it’s EXCITING. There’s a world of potential with Viet Cong; so many things they could accomplish, so much great music they could create. Actually, no, fuck ‘could’. They will. Earlier this year (after Cassette was initially released, but before it was re-released) they uploaded a rough mix of a song called ‘Bunker Buster’ to Soundcloud. It’s presumably from their album sessions, and it’s a thoroughly evil sounding track: powerful (totally befitting its name), hypnotic, constantly developing, and has this underlying swagger that makes it feel like the coolest fucking thing in the world. It’s pretty much a world apart from anything on Cassette, save for one very important aspect: that uninhibited thing; that intangible Something; that soul. So while Cassette stands well on its own as the largely fruitful experiments of a talented band, the thought that it lay downs a number of compelling roads for Viet Cong has been undermined. They’ve pretty much said ‘sod roads’ and flown away on a jetpack. And you have to admire that.