Published Jul 10, 2016These things are true: Preoccupations' 2015 debut Viet Cong is a thrilling work of doomsday post-punk, widely lauded and short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. Viet Cong, their former band name, is also a racist reference to a group that killed innocent lives during the Vietnam War, and hurtful to the Vietnamese community, as Hooded Fang's April Aliermo wrote in Exclaim! last September.
Why does it bear repeating? On their first world tour stop in Canada as Preoccupations last night (July 9) at Ottawa's RBC Bluesfest, the Canadian post-punk outfit played outside the Canadian War Museum. It was a dark allusion for a band that once had little understanding of the gravity of their wartime name to be playing on the periphery of so much knowledge about conflict.
Between Preoccupations' name change, the rain and the Blacksheep Stage being an outlier to the main RBC Bluesfest site, a crowd of no more than 100 gathered to take in Preoccupations' set. And yet, the setting was ideal – as enveloping, disorienting, and chaotic as Preoccupations' music. Drummer Mike Wallace set the tone for the night with a pummelling, distorted drum beat that could have been mistaken for the thunder earlier in the day. By "Continental Shelf," Preoccupations fell into form, with Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen's jarring guitar drone creating a nightmarish atmosphere that swallowed the crowd.
Preoccupations' low-end was their greatest strength on songs like "Anxiety," off their upcoming self-titled sophomore album. Frontman and bassist Matt Flegel owes much to Ian Curtis of Joy Divison with a vocal delivery that varied between grounding Preoccupations' chaos and drowning in it. Flegel would have benefitted from a higher mic level, as many of his words were lost to the noise.
"March of Progress" was the absolute standout, complete with an extended low, throbbing synth intro that gave way to frantic drumming and ringing guitars in a moment of genuine ecstasy. Its build-up was transformative, a lift cast in spiralling white lights that incited the centre of the crowd to break into moshing.
So too did the band eventually get loose. Christiansen played a mocking if not convincing bluesy riff whenever Flegel mentioned RBC Bluesfest by name, and Flegel literally ribbed Christiansen for getting his ears pierced. When the Blacksheep Stage's video screen cut out partway through their set, Preoccupations shrugged it off as a technical difficulty for the better: the loss of spectacle made for a starker, more thematically appropriate picture of mist hanging in the darkness between violent flashes of white light.
Extended closer "Death" had a false start as Christiansen's guitar cut out, putting the onus on Munro and the rhythm section to fill the void. Preoccupations managed to get back in sync with pulsing bass, guitar screaming crashing into each other, and M.V.P. Wallace's march-like drum beat giving "Death" a menacing backbone.