First, a note: The week’s real best album is Sleater-Kinney’s triumphant comeback No Cities To Love. It’s also the best album of the month. It could quite well end up being the best album of the year. It’s fucking incredible. But we’ve already reviewed the album, in Premature Evaluation form. So we’re using this space, as we often do, to call attention to a very good album that’s not getting the same attention as the week’s highest-profile LP.
In the best scene of 24 Hour Party People, or at least the best one I can remember, Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, between cough syrup swigs, tortures Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris. He tells him that drummers have been playing like him since time began. He tells him to play “faster but slower.” He ultimately sends him up on the studio rooftop, where he plays his simple skeletal drum figure over and over into the night, as the rest of the band forgets about him and drives off. A scene later, we see what that torture hath wrought. We see the band and Factory Records owner Tony Wilson driving through Manchester as “She’s Lost Control” plays and everyone slowly realizes that something incredible is happening. Viet Cong, the new Calgary postpunk band, are going to draw a lot of Joy Division comparisons, but they never hint at that steely bone-rattle of a Joy Division drum sound. (The Ian Curtis vocal tone is another story.) “Newspaper Spoons,” the first song on the album, opens with drums, and they’re drums shrouded in so much reverb that they actually sound like thunder. If the moment recalls another band’s work, it’s the earlyish Liars, as they were figuring out how to not be a dancepunk band. But drums sounds aside, Viet Cong, the band’s full-length debut, reminds me of that movie scene. Viet Cong are more buried in the music of the past than Joy Division or even Liars were. But there’s that same sense that they’re unlearning the things that they’ve learned, doing whatever they can to come up with their own music language. It’s an exhilarating feeling.
Viet Cong don’t come from nowhere; they have a context. Core members Matt Flegel and Michael Wallace used to play in Women, a Calgary band that won an impressive amount of internet love by presenting dense and tangled guitar textures, releasing two albums before breaking up in a dramatic 2010 onstage brawl. A little more than a year later, guitarist Christopher Reimer died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 26. Women weren’t really a band with a frontman, but if they had one, Flegel and Wallace weren’t it. They were the rhythm section, the band’s backbone, and their steady pulse is what made all those knots of sound possible in the first place. They’re now the core of Viet Cong. (They haven’t gotten much better at naming bands, have they?) Wallace still drums, and Flegel plays bass and sings. If Viet Cong have a frontman, Flegel is it. Last year, the band released Cassette, a tour-only EP that ended up getting picked up and given a proper release. The difference between Cassette, the EP, and Viet Cong, the album, barely exists. They’re both seven songs long, and Viet Cong only lasts a few more minutes, owing entirely to the album-closing 11-minute monolith “Death.” And yet, they sound like a completely different band from the one who made Cassette. Both releases show bands in the process of becoming what they are, but Viet Cong is a lot further down that road.
And if I can ride with that too-simplistic Joy Division comparison for a second, I’d like to point out just how much it doesn’t fit, whatever surface-level similarities Flegel’s vocal timbre might have with Ian Curtis’ devoid-of-hope baritone scrape. (Actually, with all the wriggling tension in the music, there’s as much Wire or the Fall in there as there is Joy Division.) In some important ways, Viet Cong are really New Order to Women’s Joy Division: The band that continued after the breakup and tragedy of another beloved two-album wonder, the one that pushed the mild-mannered role-players to the front and found a way to bring rays of sunshine. I had a hard time with Women. Other than a couple of tracks where everything clicked, they seemed more interested in conjuring a jangled and unstable atmosphere than they were in writing actual songs that I might like. Viet Cong are a long way away from writing their “Bizarre Love Triangle” (as were Movement-era New Order, come to think of it), but they do have songs. They have moments of soul-busting joy. “Newspaper Spoons” dissolves from its warlocks-chanting opening to waves of dizzy synth beauty, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re hearing a lost B-side from the Orb. “Bunker Buster,” like prime PiL, pushes its buried-deep jitters toward something grand and cathartic. “Silhouettes” proves that this is a band that can beat the young bloodthirsty Scandinavian punk bands at their own game when they feel like it. “March Of Progress” is spangly psychedelia, albeit spangly psychedelia with drums that sound like a battleship’s engine room.
And to make another ridiculous comparison, Viet Cong has something significant in common with No Cities To Love, the day’s other great rock album. Both Sleater-Kinney and Viet Cong are dual-guitar monsters who have thrown out the rhythm-and-lead binary and instead come up with something more complex and expressive. Like Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, Viet Cong guitarists Danny Christiansen and Scott “Monty” Munroe build intricate tangles with their instruments. They don’t play with each other; they play against each other. With Sleater-Kinney, those feverish, darting back-and-forths are urgent and instinctive and feral in ways that Viet Cong don’t even attempt. Viet Cong are, instead, more orderly. They’re cleaner and mathier, more concerned with groove. But they still slash at each other, and they still draw blood. In certain moments, “Continental Shelf” sounds like someone threw two arena-size riffs in a burlap sack and made them fight it out with each other. And it also builds to “Death,” a magnificent piece of staring-into-infinity krautrock that easily slides from one phase of the moon to another. Viet Cong is a masterfully sequenced album, in part because everything points toward “Death,” because “Death,” in its vastness, overshadows everything that came below. It’s not easy to make guitar-rock that sounds like something new in 2015, and I’m not even sure “Death” accomplishes that task. I do know, however, that the song leaps into the abyss in a way that feels new. Its guitars twinkle and stab and chime and growl and stretch out, and they become something greater than themselves.
Other albums of note out today:
• Sleater-Kinney’s masterful, monstrous return No Cities To Love.
• Belle And Sebastian’s disco move Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance.
• The Decemberists’ erudite folk-rock exercise What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World.
• Marilyn Manson’s glam-inflected The Pale Emperor.
• Joey Bada$$’s boom-bap debut B4.DA.$$.
• Sick Feeling’s hardcore basher Suburban Myth.
• The Sidekicks’ warm, instictive punker Runners In The Nerved World.
• Elephant Micah’s languid, minimal Where In Our Woods.
• Cloakroom’s miserablist effects-pedal symphony Further Out.
• Jack Name’s oblique, lo-fi, atmospheric affair Weird Moons.
• Erase Eratta’s skronky comback Lost Weekend.
• Bandit’s dramatic slow-motion debut Of Life.
• Until The Ribbon Breaks’ dance-rock groove-fest A Lesson Unlearnt.
• Ghostface Killah/Sheek Louch side project Wu-Block’s for-the-faithful sophomore effort Hidden Gems.
• Mac DeMarco buddy Alex Calder’s mellow debut Strange Dreams.
• Boxed’s krautrock debut Boxed In.
• Grand Vapids’ lush indie-rocker Guarantees.
• Lupe Fiasco’s cult-rap nerd-out Tetsuo & Youth.
• Amen Dunes’ Cowboy Worship EP.
• Petite Noir’s The King Of Anxiety EP.
• Brenmar’s Award EP.
• Meat Wave’s Brother EP.
• Limited’s EMPIRE PARASITE MP3S EP.
• Stalls’ self-titled EP.