Album Review: Viet Cong – Viet Cong

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This piece was originally published on the 13th of January 2015 by The 405. I’ve made a few revisions, mostly to the opening paragraph, which never should have been published in its original state. That aside, however, I think this piece holds up well. I’m not entirely sure why, but this review was the first piece of music criticism I wrote that was actually quite incisive. I’m not just winging it, pointing to surface details, and hoping that enough bluster and hyperbole will carry me through the review. And though I’m still guilty of some of that hyperbole and bluster here, as well as some unfortunate ticks (that were beginning to disappear!), there’s definitely more attention to detail in this review. It’s not just me prattling on about how the album makes me feel (which was essentially the entirety of my review of You’re Dead!) but doing more to identify why it makes me feel that way. It’s hardly perfect, but, given that it was my third full-length album review for The 405, it was a huge leap forward for me.

It’s the rare emerging artist that becomes the toast of Twitter on the strength of their music alone. Though many start in the same way, with a naive sense of conviction and a ramshackle creative freedom, artists are by no means all created equal. The ones covered by the majority of the mainstream music press, irrespective of whether they’re actually any good or not, often have something more going for them: an aesthetic or attitude or narrative that’s marketable; a quality that distinguishes an artist within the rapidly swelling abscess of new music; something that more readily embeds them within the collective consciousness. (A good label also helps). It is, after all, easier to sell music when it’s part of a wider package, when there’s more to buy into. And it follows that Viet Cong, who many will likely recognise as the latest buzz band that people cannot seem to shut up about, are buoyed by a compelling narrative that invariably eclipses all when discussing the band: they are directly related to the sadly departed, cult-favourite Calgary art-rockers Women, who famously started throwing fists during a soundcheck and later broke up, and whose second and final album, Public Strain, surely ranks among the best records of the decade.

More specifically, the comprises the erstwhile Pitchfork darlings’ rhythm section – bassist Matt Flegel, also on vocal duties here, and drummer Mike Wallace – as well as Calgary-based musicians Scott Munro and Danny Christiansen. This connection is obviously a source of attraction for fans of Women who are excited to hear what its ex-members are up to now. But that excitement has essentially formed the basis of how we’ve separated Viet Cong from all the other white guys with guitars: we’ve pigeonholed them as Women II: The Quickening and loaded them with the hefty baggage of Women’s oeuvre. For all the prestige this connection bestows upon Viet Cong, however, the band treats it with utter ambivalence. They are, of course, content with people making a surface association with Women – after all, it grants them the sort of attention rarely afforded to new bands without significant label backing – but they’re not content to consciously invoke it themselves. Quite right, too, as doing so would generate expectations that would not be met. As evidenced by their self-titled debut album, Viet Cong are an entirely different band with an entirely different sound, and are, most importantly, entirely comfortable as such.

To be sure, where Women’s music was like a mist that rolled in – chilly and mysterious and elusive – Viet Cong are more akin to a storm with their cacophonous and undeniable approach to post-punk. From the emphatic, practically industrial percussion that introduces and resounds throughout the opening track ‘Newspaper Spoons’, what’s most immediately striking about the band is the direct and powerful nature of their music. On each of the album’s seven tracks, Viet Cong appear almost uniquely accomplished when it comes to making a tremendous fucking racket, one that hits you hard and at a visceral level, that demands you furiously jerk around like an idiot because it’s so infectious. But this is not predicated on a noisy or superficially loud mix, nor the overuse of reverb – though it is most definitely loud and meticulously adorned with reverb – rather a simple but a strong interplay between the musicians, for which purposes Matt Flegel’s galvanising bass is more important than his vocals (which do at times register as an instrumental layer rather than a mode of verbal communication). Behind the studio effects, the surface melodies, and experimental flourishes – of which all add weight – are foundational harmonies between the instruments that organically flesh out and provide depth to the songs, that produce an aural world that feels so damn thick and imposing.

This kind of dynamism is obviously one of post-punk’s key tenets, and it’s evident throughout the record that Viet Cong have taken great inspiration from post-punk bands of the avant-garde persuasion: This Heat particularly (Deciet is all over this thing), but you can also hear Joy Division, The Pop Group, and early Public Image Ltd in there too. Make no mistake, this album is thoroughly unorthodox, with the band both employing a wide palette of discordant elements and eschewing traditional song structures in favour of something more kaleidoscopic. To be sure, Viet Cong rarely allow their songs to rest, preferring instead to deftly interweave seemingly disparate ideas as they hurtle relentlessly forward towards the denouement. And this velocity is imperative because, when combined with their muscularity, it imbues their more experimental proclivities with a sense of purpose – as if they’re actually going somewhere as opposed to farting around for the sake of it – a promise that they invariably make good on (best evidenced by ‘March of Progress’). Consequently, we get songs such that are at once linear and amorphous such as ‘Death’ and ‘Silhouettes’, songs that are kind of like being in a train moving so incredibly fast that everything outside is blurred and constantly fluctuating but still undeniably careering forwards. In fact, even the slower numbers ‘Newspaper Spoons’ and ‘March of Progress’ are shifting and multifarious in this way, which lends a liberating unpredictability to the whole album. It feels so invigorating and alive as opposed to trite or domesticated to the point of banality, as many contemporary rock albums tend to be.

This is the same basic approach to songwriting Viet Cong employed on their Cassette EP. But where the band were essentially investigating the different paths on that (endearingly) ramshackle release, what’s most impressive about their debut is its unerring sense of cohesion. In this regard, it obviously helps that it was recorded in the same studio with the same producer (Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck) as opposed to self-produced in their basements. More crucially, though, they manage to strike a balance amid all the discord and chaos – somewhat remarkable considering everything going on with this album. We could perhaps attribute this to their impeccable sense of pacing. Or to the fact that, despite the album’s variety, all the disparate elements establish and then reinforce an overall air of menace and claustrophobia. Maybe we could say that, even at its most obscure, it never descends into anything particularly alienating because the band demonstrates an acute awareness of when they should indulge their experimental whims and when to rein it in. Or we could add that their songs are always melodic and replete with enthralling hooks that could engross any ear, even with their avant-garde influences – the robust swagger of ‘Bunker Buster’s central riff, for example, or the jagged vigour of ‘Silhouettes’, the ecstatic chorus of lead single ‘Continental Shelf’ etc. Really, I doubt these points are mutually exclusive. They all contribute equally to an experience that, for all the band’s ambition and experimental designs, never descends into anything fragmented, daunting, or unwieldy.

So it’s no wonder why people cannot, or will not, shut up about Viet Cong. A slight but perfectly judged thirty-seven minutes long, their debut album is one that constantly confounds expectations and negotiates potentially difficult territory with an assured, exhilarating expertise. While we can’t seem to shake the Women connection right now, the band gives a strong account for why we’ll have to in the future. They’re more direct, more inviting, and I’ll hazard a guess that they’ll appeal to far more people than Women ever did. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Viet Cong are better than Women, it’s that they’re nothing at all alike. It’s a matter of intent, really, they’re just not aiming to achieve or express the same things. That they share members is honestly just a happy coincidence – albeit one that’s served them well thus far. So, despite the narrative we’ve foisted upon them, Viet Cong would rather distinguish themselves from most other white guys with guitars by being, well, fucking excellent. By having more passion, more energy, more imagination than most of the field combined; by making an album that’s weird and wild and I suspect unlike anything else that’ll be released this year. So fuck the narrative. Fuck Women. Fuck the acrid stench of banality emanating from modern rock. Listen to Viet Cong.

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