There’s nothing new to say about death. Artists continue to tear through the subject for material because it’s organic, universal, and meaningful, but almost never is something new revealed about its significance or its effects. This is why the most engaging works about death are the direct result of something — the loss of a loved one or a near-death experience, perhaps. An audience relates to an artist that chooses to confront their pain and share the experience with them. It’s a rare and valuable communion of suffering.
Viet Cong’s debut self-titled album is one such work of art. The band features two past members of now-defunct rock group Women, who suffered the tragic death of guitarist Christopher Reimer in 2012, two years after the band called it quits. Whether or not they intended to reference it, Reimer’s passing looms over Viet Cong in a very tangible way. “We’re desperately debilitated / If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die”, vocalist Matt Flegel sings on the depressingly but appropriately titled “Pointless Experience”, just one of the many direct allusions to mortality on the album. It’d be hard to eliminate such a life-changing experience from one’s consciousness when creating a personal work of art, even more so when Viet Cong as a band retains many of Women’s most definitive components: lo-fi architecture, spindly guitar lines, and a distantly melancholic atmosphere. Viet Cong is decidedly not a spiritual continuation of Women, but the history is still there, lurking quietly in the corner, inescapable.
Musically, Viet Cong achieve a remarkable sense of dynamism by bleeding bright melodies into a mill of lo-fi industrial percussion and monotonous vocals, a compositional technique not unlike the signature methodology of Sonic Youth. The discordant guitars showering over each song eventually give way to softer melodies like a shaft of sunlight breaking through waves of dense black storm clouds, enriching both the dour and the beautiful passages by virtue of having something to contrast them against. On opening track “Newspaper Spoons”, a wave of harsh feedback, as if being overcome, fades into a lovely melodic line to close out the song; the first half of “March of Progress” pairs robust industrial drumming with an uplifting but barely perceptible melody; the sweetly sung “Continental Shelf” features an undercurrent of dissonant guitars and distorted bass. There is never beauty on the album without some bleak severity to counter it.
Flegel lends his own steady, droning vocals to the record, extending his range at only a few choice moments, made all the more memorable because of their juxtaposition with his otherwise repetitive intoning. This dynamic approach climaxes in the album’s final song, the 11-minute long “Death”, which cuts off into a sharp, brutal breakdown in its final moments with Flegel’s pained shouts (appropriately quoting Nietzsche) snapping in unison with the guitars and drums: “What does deep midnight’s voice contend / Deeper than day can comprehend? / Accelerated fall, / An orbital sprawl, expanded and swollen”. It’s a powerful ending, the moment when you realize a tension had been building over the album, when it finally, triumphantly comes crashing down on the band. As the title suggests, it’s both tragic and cathartic.
Regardless of the influence Reimer’s death had on the album, it’s an incredible release. There are instances of emotional distance on the album, as if the band are holding back, flat passages of songs that serve to make the big emotional moments all the more affecting. It shows that Viet Cong is an outstanding record specifically because the immaculate craftsmanship only enhances the emotionally rich experience. There may be nothing new to say about death, but everyone is still forced to face it at one time or another, deal with it in their own way and adjust to it. Viet Cong is an immensely personal record in that way, the band’s unique contention with death. It’s appropriately chaotic, tortured, and labyrinthine; and yet still, after listening to it over and over, I can’t help but feel that it’s those delicate, beautiful moments scattered throughout the album that stand out the most among the discord, as few and far between as they might be.