Calgary’s Preoccupations Leap Beyond Post-Punk And Make The Best Album Of Their Lives

Pooneh Ghana

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There might not be a genre more predictable than post-punk. Since its eventual evolution in the mid-’80s, most bands that have worn the label have done little to improve upon the work of Gang Of Four, Wire, and Joy Division. Instead, they’ve opted to resuscitate old sounds for a new generation, happy to bask in revivalism even if they don’t have much to say themselves. Obviously, there are exceptions — Interpol’s Turn Out The Bright Lights surely captured a cultural moment that went way beyond nostalgia, while Protomartyr’s barroom blitzkrieg is more singular than it gets credit for — but when something get branded with a post-punk label, it’s rarely something to get excited about.

Throughout his career, Matt Flegel has felt like an outlier to whatever scene or moment he gets lumped into. When his band Women were getting the Pitchfork bump back in the late-aughts, his work had a solidarity to the sticky art rock of Deerhunter and No Age that was coming out at the time, even if it didn’t feel as betrothed to basements and garages. But when that four-piece flamed out following an on-stage fight between its members, and later suffered the tragic death of guitarist Christopher Reimer, Flegel and drummer Michael Wallace reemerged with a new band and a more prickly presentation. Indeed, the new endeavor was well-received by critics, pummeling audiences with technical grooves and loud-as-all-hell blasts that capitalized on forward momentum.

The only problem was that this band was named Viet Cong, and almost as soon as the group started to get recognition, they were tasked with rebranding. With 2018 eyes, the decision to name a band Viet Cong, or even an all-dude band named Women for that matter, might feel inexplicable, but at the time, wokeness was just starting to become a prevalent discussion. So, the band apologized and went back to the drawing board, remerging as Preoccupations and hoping for a third chance at grabbing attention. And while the internet buzz on the band wasn’t quite as strong, the most incredible aspect of the group was that they were pushing themselves to new creative heights with each release, regardless of what their band was named.

So, with their second album since becoming Preoccupations and their third in this band configuration, the four-piece of Flegel, Wallace, Monty Munro, and Scott Christianson are back with the shrug of an album title New Material. Fortunately, the album’s name is the only aspect of the release that doesn’t feel like the result of deep ideas and even deeper emotional investment. Whereas the last album felt like a post-punk album refracted through a prism of new wave and experimental rock, this one is more grounded and direct than anything the band has ever produced. It’s not the sound of a band watering itself down to make itself more palatable. It’s the sound of self-realization.

Maybe this sense of inspiration in the musicianship comes from the introspective place that Flegel was lyrically when the album was being penned. He has described the album as “an ode to depression and self-sabotage,” noting that he didn’t even realize the magnitude of what was wrong until he went back and looked at his own lyrics. And if that premise sounds as cold as the winter Alberta tundra that the band calls home, it doesn’t really play out that way. Lead single “Espionage” certainly has angst and aggression to spare, but it also soars in the chorus and is buoyed by Wallace’s snare-riding percussion. If it’s not the best song the band has ever recorded, then it certainly is the most immediate, setting a tone for an album that won’t just wallow in the dark recesses of Flegel’s mind, but looks for a way to kick out the door on the other side.

The band recently released a music video for another of the standouts, “Disarray,” which sports a reverberated guitar line dreamy enough to be on Captured Tracks. In the clip, images of Flegel walking on the beach are animated over to demonstrate the mental turbulence reflected in the lyrics. But, both visually and sonically, it’s still rooted in beauty, and that’s a word that Preoccupations never really seemed to confidently display until now. But nothing is apropos on New Material. “Decompose” is ominously hypnotic; “Antidote” is so rhythmically engaged that it could virtually be described as a dance song. Saying yes to making an album so unflinchingly about something has resulted in an album that feels like sonic affirmation, like four improvisers “yes and-ing” each other out of their comfort zone and into choppy, dangerous, and infinitely deep waters. As Flegel repeats on the album’s opening track: “Change is everything.”

A couple years back, I had the pleasure of speaking with drummer Michael Wallace about the five times he almost died. These included becoming a Muay Thai fighter and falling asleep in an opium haze alone in the Sahara desert. As wild as these stories were, and as much personality as the rest of the band has shown in any moments I had been in proximity of them interacting, the music of Preoccupations wasn’t always imbued with the same humanity, a typical drawback in a post-punk genre that can feel robotic at times. But that’s the best thing about New Material. Beginning with Flegel’s self-examining lyrics and continuing to the interplay of the instruments, which can bounce from playful to jagged in a moment’s notice, it sounds like an album with warm blood pumping through it. It has a heart and it has a soul, resigned at times to a life of newspaper grey and left to only hope for moments of technicolor euphoria.

There isn’t a big lyrical redemption from Flegel, but the choice to end the album on an instrumental is telling. Following a song called “Decompose” where he repeats, “For or better or worse we are cursed in the ways that we tend to be,” we are left to wonder what comes after hitting the bottom, and what is left when everything has rotted away? “Compliance” brings droning static and steadily percolating intensity, ultimately sounding like something close to a rebirth, or, as Flegel describes is, “a forced reprieve.” It’s the most hopeful moment on the album, as if Flegel and his band could only articulate that emotion with their instruments rather than their words. And, it’s miles beyond what anyone would label as post-punk, or what could easily be labeled at all. This is not just “new material” as the title suggests, but it’s a whole new universe for Preoccupations, and one that might be impossible for them to top.

Preoccupations’ New Material is out now on Jagjaguwar. Buy it here.