(Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye; 2015)
By Brent Ables & Robin Smith | 19 January 2015
Viet Cong pursue the mortal shade to the edge of paradox, where, in buildings built to break, edges fold into themselves and nothing begins. They mark the most cruel joke of being alive: that we shades, we “silhouettes” occupying these “structureless designs,” are asked despite everything to be competent. Having “miscalculated the effectiveness of competent stupidity,” we find ourselves at the bottom; floating to the surface, riding the current, we broadcast our ascendance through “deflated amplifiers overdeveloped in incompetent ways.” The difference is one of mere expression. With intimidating diction and uncanny intuition, this band leads a revolt against the unbearable pointlessness of being: “There is no reason, you know? No reason for being awake.” So let’s tell Being how we feel. Now that we have Viet Cong, this seismic siren of an indie rock record, there’s “no need to suffer silently.” But you better get used to the suffering.
Viet Cong invite us to debilitate articulately, to decay to the cadences of the thanatopic blueprints that form this album’s lyric sheet. That’s right, Women fans: we have lyrics now. They have been dusted off. They have been filled in. We will use them all. We spent months lurking around feckless lyric sites to complete the half-finished sentences that made up Public Strain (2010), returning with a series of furious question marks. We spun fractions of the record, subjugating its poetry for feedback and scrutinizing its taunts—“Can’t you see?”, in a snow storm—as if they were clues. But Viet Cong is a full treatise, one that curls around its own intellectualism—one that thinks “idiosyncrasy” is a good word to be sung. It finds a hundred difficult ways to talk about death without ever really mentioning it.
In this purely thematic sense, Viet Cong is among the most compellingly monotonous albums in recent memory, addressing all questions by unwavering deference to that same answer—death, only death—applied in a kind of recurring paradoxical thesis. The thesis is that we are “deliberately made to disintegrate”; that “we build the buildings and they’re built to break.” It says that we human beings are built to spill; that if you begin as nothing, and go straight long enough, you’ll end up where you were. The almost casual nihilism that, more than any sonic trademark, served as a thorough-line for the most profound indie rock made in the late ’90s and early aughts has its spiritual successor in this record. If that strain culminated in the twin monuments of The Moon and Antarctica (2001) and Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005), it is proper that Viet Cong be accorded the kind of prestige we retrospectively attribute to those albums.
Lineage notwithstanding, bassist and lead singer Matt Flegel has a singular proclivity for cutting through the existential bullshit: “When all is said and done / You’ll be around until you’re gone.” On this point, the Wolf Parade comparison we first drew in a discussion of “Pointless Experience” last month, perhaps a bit hastily, breaks down. Wolf Parade stared into the abyss, too, but the enduring power of their debut LP came from the impossible spirit they summoned to overstep that abyss. They kept their heads up tight, nickel strings strung tight, and built another world. Viet Cong drag their feet. They’re the sloppy, angry drunks, bumming smokes from Dan Boeckner, pshaw-ing the long-haired Casanova Krug as he maudlins his prey into a romantic daze. While Chad VanGaalen trips out in the corner and rhapsodizes about blood machines, while little brother Pat, snarling, adorns his Bo Peep best, Matt Flegel stoically experiments with concentrating himself to death. His secret? It’s just a matter of rhythm.
When we heard this band’s first release, the Cassette EP (2013), CMG’s Alan Baban asked whether Viet Cong’s rhythm section had any equal in contemporary indie rock. If it was an open question then, it’s a virtual certainty now. It’s not just that Flegel and ex-Women compatriot Mike Wallace are experts at grounding and complementing what goes on in the foreground of the tracks; the structures of the songs are the foreground. This isn’t a “guitar album,” or an album centered on bass or drums per se. It’s an album centered on structures, patterns, algorithms—in short, the “cold and cruel arithmetic” charted out by the band’s formidable rhythm section. Just listen to the way “Pointless Experience” pans its screaming guitars off to the margins of the speakers while the snare in the spotlight rides a jolt of triplets right into the stratosphere. Or how the harmonic development of the lyrical sections of “Death” is guided almost entirely by Flegel’s bass lines. When the guitars take the spotlight, they tend to do so in punctuated bursts: the angelic light shining through the last minute of “Newspaper Spoons,” or the spry ecstasy that launches the third movement of “March of Progress.”
“March of Progress”‘s first prong is the sound of manufactured industry shit being turned over and over and over, like Vatican Shadow’s techno parsed out among a hundred factory hands, busied but never involved in the true majesty of what they’re making. That’s all Wallace’s drumming, of course, but when did Canadian indie rock ever feel like the work of one humble servant? Even Carey Mercer’s solo work as Blackout Beach sounds like one man’s unprecedented adventure with his talking (gurgling, squealing, reaving, rending) instruments. The percussive drone in “March” rattles on for three minutes, abiding by its measurements and then stopping with the audacity of a straight line that simply becomes something else—the synths twist, a tiny bit, with the physical bereavement that marks every one of this band’s switch-ups. Those synths have the kind of lethargic violence a key has when it strains to unlock a door, but what they open for us is a gorgeous, healing passage of music like none other.
This bit is for lovers: its chords fly upwards, chasing and dovetailing toward one another, as if Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen are playing one and then letting the other relay the appropriate response. Which is repetition, always—the inflections in each strum feel different, weighted by what’s come before, but they offer the repetition of a friend, someone who “keeps you warm,” who traces your body with theirs. Viet Cong is death, for Christ’s sake, but the second suite of “March of Progress” is nothing but positive reinforcement, steadily breathed. It isn’t the record’s centrepiece, but with those beautiful chords and cooed harmonies (which feel like this record’s answer to Public Strain’s feedback, because if you aren’t playing guitar into your amp, you might as well sing at each other) it’s where the heart is.
“March of Progress” ends by asking why it’s been built when it’s just going to fall on us anyway—if the world is indifferent, then why aren’t we, and “what is the difference between love and hate?” The song’s answer is just what it describes—a liturgy of riffs, the song’s third torrential drumbeat of three, the final suite towards broken buildings. If Viet Cong believe in one actual thing, it’s creating onomatopoeias from melodies: like that part in “Paranoid Android” where Thom Yorke sings “rain down, rain down on me” until it really does, guitars wrap around each other until the buildings can’t bear themselves at this altitude and have to fall. Viet Cong seems to buy into the idea that if nothing’s good for anything, it’s to soften this fall. The second prong of “March of Progress” answers the third; it is a meaningless sweet spot, but it happens between the beginning and the end. Despite Flegel deferring to rhetoric whenever he wants, he remains a firm believer in the moments that can be colorful and strange right before a moment never happens again.
As if to drive home this emphasis on the interstitial, “Silhouettes” is made up of an endless slew of middle segments. It takes the climaxes from Interpol’s discordant night rides and runs them together with the next layer of every low fantasy Sunset Rubdown song. And you won’t listen to “Bunker Buster” a hundred times because it takes you somewhere, but because in these black-hole verses and stuttering tumescent jams, you’ll feel the uncomfortable thrill of what it means to actively go nowhere at all. With the exception of lead single “Continental Shelf,” the most traditional song here, Viet Cong consistently upends the traditional rock conventions of build-up and catharsis, pressure and release. And the band compensates for the lost effect through the careful, conscious manipulation of unchecked anticipation. Having “failed to keep the necessary papers for evacuation,” we’re stuck in that anticipation. But Viet Cong aren’t waiting for Godot, or even God. They’re just looking for some relief like the rest of us—jonesing for the punchline to a joke that no one remembers.
“Continental Shelf” is the shit, by the way, and it continues to split the difference between Women and Viet Cong. You could capture a Women record on a crappy Cloverfield (2008) camera and call it a lo-fi accident; its melodies were something to be in the right place for, and VanGaalen’s mutilated productions turned fans into witnesses. Viet Cong is more pronounced, like a gyroscope spinning into new versions of itself. Women once said “I can hardly recognize the shapes,” but Viet Cong can’t stop reproducing them. Between verse and chorus, “Continental Shelf” sounds teleported, but it’s just that the cameras are switching. The synths fade, slow motion and real time marry each other, and the song arrives, without time’s blessing, on the next shot. It’s still obscured, but in a different way. Viet Cong is a momentarily lapsing panorama.
And waiting just over the horizon of this blinkering rotunda? An 11-minute closer called—what else?—“Death.” It might, all on its own, be one of the best post-punk songs ever recorded. It’s beautiful, really, but it’s mostly interested in reminding us just how little that matters. The song asks, “What does deep midnight’s voice contend / Deeper than day can comprehend?” like it was Edgar Allen Poe or some shit, but we already know the answer is nothing. “Nothing,” remember, “is beginning.” And you have to hear this all the ways it can be heard to really hear this record. If we are just so much organized dust in the wind, so many “quality arrangements of the constellations,” then our end is also a return. But it’s not our return: hungry for order, “we went too far the other way.” Our luck is out; we’ll never get home. Nothing for it but to shut up, give in, get old, and die.