Preoccupations offers a multilayered synthesis of some of the finer moments of rock music’s past.
Formed as Viet Cong in 2012, the Canadian band released their debut in 2015 and changed their name to Preoccupations in 2016 following a minor controversy involving their initial moniker. Their follow-up eponymous album builds on their debut (also eponymous; if they change their name again, perhaps they can release Eponymous 3!), further showcasing the band’s ability to integrate noise, post-punk approaches, and quasi-improvisational drone jams into a cohesive gestalt. With the new album, the band additionally utilizes melodic and dream-pop elements, forging a complex and multifaceted sound that may well appeal to a wide range of listeners.
The opening track, “Anxiety”, begins with a trebly hum that swells portentously, conjuring images of sterile laboratories and robot sentinels standing about with automatic rifles. At approximately one minute into the song, Matt Flegel establishes the lyrical tone of the album, invoking “a nightmare so cryptic and incomprehensible”. As we’re drawn into an inhospitable sonic cosmos reminiscent of Spectres, Swans, or Hookworms, however, melodic flourishes surface that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joy Division, Broken Bells, or TV on the Radio recording. Throughout the song, regardless of instrumental fluctuations in tone and volume, the vocal remains constrained, even monotonous; occasionally, as the piece unfolds, echoing nuances of Iggy Pop.
The album builds on the foundational hybridizations accomplished on the first track -- avant garde, noise, and dream-pop elements reconfigured and dynamically blended. The second track highlights Mike Wallace’s electronic-sounding drums, a storm of swirling and concentric atmospheres, and a vocal that reminds me of Kiss Me-era Robert Smith or “Berlin Trilogy”-Bowie. With the third track, “Zodiac,” Flegel channels Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, the band’s mechanized rhythms and synthesized subtleties cresting over his vocal.
The long track, “Memory”, is a more focused study of noise, industrial rhythms, and dream-pop melodies. The instrumental segment is exemplary post-punk / art-punk, reminiscent of a jam you might hear at a Cloud Nothings show and illustrating Preoccupations’ absorption and recasting of such bands as Television and Sonic Youth as well as noise-pop pioneers My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The lyrics suggest a European sensibility, a possible tip of the hat to Dan Bejar:
Necessary but against your better judgment
you are being overcharged in a market square
Overwhelmed and it’s coming from all angles
you are entertaining the idea that it wasn’t fair.
And later: “I can’t remember where we were / where were we when we all went under?”
On the closing song, Flegel’s vocal reminds me of Bowie’s vulnerable articulations on his swan song Blackstar. The synthesized and hooky instrumental progression, meanwhile, is exemplary late '70s / early '80s Brit-pop a la Human League or Duran Duran. Concurrently a metallic and fuzzed-out ambience transports the song into prog-industrial realms, the piece ending with the repeated lyric: “You’re not scared / carry your fever away from here”. In this way, the album follows a thematic or conceptual arc, albeit represented sonically (lyrically to a lesser degree); the contained and paralytic “Anxiety” seguing into the explorative stases and flux of the middle tracks, the set culminating with the sober but still transcendent “Fever”.
To be widely influenced, yet to absorb and reconfigure these influences in such a way as to assert a unique or signature style is itself an art. In fact, the ability to be derivatively original or originally derivative may be one of the primary aesthetic bars for (pop) artists in the 21st Century. Consider Animal Collective that so effectively combines and revamps such influences as early Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, Daft Punk, and Moby. Certainly Sam Esmail’s hit USA show, Mr. Robot, is a prime example, a singularly contemporary and topical vision crafted from such clear sources as The Matrix, American Psycho, and Fight Club.
With their sophomore release, Preoccupations offers a multilayered synthesis of some of the finer moments of rock music’s past, a potent coalescence of disparate sources into a memorable and standout project -- creatively navigating the relationship between derivation and originality.