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On Preoccupations’ New Material, The Darkness Broadens And The Craft Deepens

Ever since their official, self-titled debut in 2015 — when they were still known as Viet Cong — Preoccupations have never really stopped moving. A year and a half later they were back with, as it were, another self-titled album after rechristening themselves in the wake of the backlash to their original moniker. In between, they toured ruthlessly, often working out the sound of their next project as they developed on the road. And now, just about a year and a half later once more, they’re back with their third album in as many years, New Material.

For a workhorse band like Preoccupations — who some hear as solidly within a traceable post-punk lineage, and who others hear as a band adding their own modern spin to the tradition — this kind of pacing could presumably lead to two different outcomes. They could take the successful premise of their first outing and rinse and repeat, churning out more songs of the type they and their fans might want to hear but keeping it within an already-defined aesthetic wheelhouse. Or they could make restless and sizable stylistic leaps, akin to how the Men were similarly prolific and used each rapid-fire missive as a means to explore whole new territory.

On the surface, Preoccupations would appear to be hewing to the former approach, churning out thoroughly greyscale post-punk albums like clockwork, brooding and anxiety baked into seven or eight tracks that convulse or surge through various passages. That’s a template the band established for themselves on Viet Cong, and it served them well. But the more time you spend with New Material, you start to feel the incremental sonic alterations that came with their name change, too. You start to feel the darkness of their world broadening, and their sense of craft deepening.

All of which isn’t to say that New Material is set to convert anyone if they weren’t already sold on this band — there is the same anger, gloom, and bleakness here that characterized its two full-length predecessors. “It’s an ode to depression,” frontman and bassist Matt Flegel said by way of introducing New Material. “To depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” You can hear that across New Material’s eight songs: It’s music built to portray the demons and to purge them, to fight against itself as a reflection of a person’s internal struggles.

That’s not exactly new ground for a band who kicked off their last album cycle with a track called “Anxiety,” but it’s a rich and necessary vein to tap for people constantly afflicted with those sorts of battles. The thing that’s notable about New Material is that it makes Preoccupations feel very much like a step in a progression. New Material, song for song, is stronger than the band’s sophomore collection, regaining the first-listen buzz songwriting turns of Viet Cong, retaining the textural attention of Preoccupations, and pushing both forward into a set of compositions that rank amongst the band’s sharpest, and certainly their most carefully produced. That same darkness hangs over New Material, but as opposed to the corroded landscapes of Viet Cong or the black-hole moments littered throughout Preoccupations, this is a luxuriant and glistening kind of darkness.

Historically, there are two main types of songs that Preoccupations excel at. There are the knotty-yet-breakneck post-punk numbers, the ones where Flegel’s bass and Mike Wallace’s dexterous drumming throw a song headlong into the rush of Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen’s interlocking-then-cascading guitar arpeggios or synth strikes, resulting in memorable rockers like “March Of Progress” or “Continental Shelf.” Then there are the instances where the band scaled that up into gnarled, shape-shifting epics — like Viet Cong’s totemic closer “Death,” or Preoccupations’ centerpiece “Memory,” in which the group slyly hid a gem of a Dan Boeckner-assisted pop song in the middle of the murk.

Where the band stumbles has always been in the more midtempo moments, where they can veer too close to (or plunge headfirst into) dirges. These are sometimes necessary capsules for the headspace Preoccupations are writing from, but they more often than not also where the band is least inventive with their songcraft. (In hindsight, a tendency towards these more claustrophobic, trudging moments may be why Preoccupations suffers in comparison to the albums that now bookend it.) New Material once more has this type of song in “Manipulation” and “Doubt,” and they’re once more the weaker links of the album. But that’s really only because of what surrounds them.

Those songs are the cold, ghostly wastelands that act as counterpoints, passageways, between tracks that rush into and rage against Preoccupations’ apocalyptic visions (of the self, and of society); and in the end, the band allows themselves to locate some moments of pure beauty within the haze.

This is one of the major revelations of New Material. Preoccupations aren’t just capable of writing cool songs with some nice turns that stick in your head — they can turn that tangled post-punk attack into true catchiness, and they can write some serious hooks above it. Across New Material, the band delves into some of their most uptempo, punchiest, and direct songs yet.

“Decompose” and “Solace” both make use of some tried-and-true Preoccupations tricks — like those strange, quick guitar shimmers they can use as something between a flash of color and an additional percussive element. “Espionage,” too, operates in a somewhat familiar zone for them, an acidic and unnerving post-punk roar. But now, rather than feeling like a noxious cloud closing in around you, their paranoia and frustrations are infectious. New Material has the Preoccupations tracks most likely to get lodged in your head, from those jams to the two singles that also serve as album highlights: “Antidote” and “Disarray.”

The former relies on Wallace’s MVP drumming once more, moving on a locked-in heart palpitation beat that latches onto you and forces you to realign to its rhythms. When Flegel growls his way into the chorus, it’s still aggressive, but it’s also an earworm. Then, in the second half, the song drops down into a numbed, paralyzed information overload fog. In this case, it’s crucial to “Antidote,” a track that mulls over our technological advancements yielding social media news oversaturation, and the fact that even with all of this at our fingertips we still go back to our basest desires. It’s a quintessentially Preoccupations song in terms of its personality, a mixture of reckoning with societal ills and depicting interior, psychological upheaval. And the composition of “Antidote” is what elevates it, seducing you with its discomfiting but danceable rhythms only to leave you paralyzed in its drowning litany, the same way as the topics it covers.

Then there’s “Disarray.” Driven by ghostly background coos of the track’s title, it’s likely the poppiest thing Preoccupations have yet written. And it’s great: a pulsing, desperate song that, within the context of post-punk and Preoccupations’ world, is a truly pretty thing. It’s a prime example of how Preoccupations can take depletion and use their synth and guitars to dress it up in a blackened sheen. Like “Antidote,” it’s not only one of the strongest songs on New Material, but also one that seems to operate on multiple levels: It’s alluring, representing that intoxicating pull the darker sides of our psyche can have.

At this point it goes without saying that, well, Preoccupations have … some kind of way with a name. There was the controversy surrounding their original choice, leading them to select a mouthful of a new one, leading to a catalog possessing two self-titled albums. On their albums, track titles are often ciphers or one word, reducing the song down to a core concept or essence. Of course, New Material comes across as pretty blunt, nearly sardonic.

But in the same way that Preoccupations’ music feels familiar yet warped and new in its way, there’s a way in which New Material gets skewed the more time you spend in its world, the individual words melting and changing meaning. “My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever,” Munro said in a recent press release. “And I think we’ve come closer than ever, here. It shouldn’t sound robotic — it should sound human, like people playing instruments. It’s just maybe no one knows what they are.”

Preoccupations is a band that can be plenty visceral, and plenty effective at capturing the end-times vibes of our society these days. But that’s what a lot of successful post-punk bands are like — if they have the songs and the mood, they can often get by. If there’s an argument to be made for why Preoccupations deserve a slightly higher pedestal than their contemporaries, it has to be somewhere in what Munro was talking about: Their most unique songs indeed feature some weird blur between synth, guitar and percussion, and it’s in those moments where they make a 40 year old genre feel fresh and exhilarating.

Their tendency is to take what looks normal and recognizable and make it feel just a little mutated. New Material is a straightforward title and this isn’t intended to imbue it with greater meaning than necessary, but — that’s what this album sounds like, materials and sounds manipulated and made alien, rendered foreign perhaps in an attempt to clarify their outside surroundings. The gorgeous instrumental that closes New Material, “Compliance,” might not exactly offer peace — but in its strange suggestiveness, it might offer the hope of a way out to something else.

With a band like Preoccupations, churning out short records at a relatively predictable clip, there’s a tendency to feel like they’re almost there each time. Two more songs, or slightly more polished production, or brighten that one hook up, and it would’ve been a classic. They’re almost perfecting their sound. That feeling hasn’t entirely dissipated by New Material. But the more time you spend sinking into it, indulging its darkness, the more Munro’s words ring true overall: This time, they’re closer than ever.

New Material is out now via Jagjaguwar.