Hey, it’s 2016! I still have this spare 2015 review that has not yet been posted here, so this is just a remnant of last year that I am dumping off on the ol’ blog for your personal enjoyment. Even better, this isn’t a review of the National Liberation Front. That would get a bad score 😮
Released: January 20, 2015
Viet Cong’s roots dig deeper than the current lineup itself, with ties to label Jagjaguwar dating back to former indie-rock darlings, Women. Originally signed to friend and collaborator Chad VanGaalen’s label Flemish Eye in 2008, Women put out their debut self-titled record in 2008, and then the widely heralded Public Strain in 2010. Both were released in Canada on VanGaalen’s Flemish Eye, as well as outward on Jagjaguwar. The band played and toured extensively to build and nurture an already growing following, yet were stricken with tragic news when guitarist Chris Reimer passed away from a heart condition in his sleep in early 2012. This, combined mostly with band turmoil and even an onstage fight, ultimately led to the band’s announcement of an indefinite hiatus, where band members went their different paths for the next season that would unfold in their young and promising careers.
Bassist Matthew Flegel and drummer Michael Wallace in turn formed Viet Cong in 2012, while lead singer of Women and brother to Matthew, Patrick Flegal pursued other musical endeavors. Viet Cong in its formation (and present state for that matter) also brought along guitarist Scott Munro and guitar/synth extraordinaire Daniel Christiansen to complete their new lineup. All band members have strict ties both in various artistic projects as well as in friendship to Chad VanGaalen, and in a sense formed as a result of word-of-mouth talk, and consequent collaboration with each other. Coincidentally enough, the welding of the relationship between the former Women bandmates and Christiansen sprouted from ties to a Black Sabbath cover band, and Munro had played in VanGaalen’s live band, surely making for a talented songwriter/guitar combination in the new swing of things.
Viet Cong released their debut EP “Cassette” in 2013, establishing a new beginning, fresh of any former baggage. The EP spawned the textbook raw sound of desperation and dark hooks that is synonymous with the band’s efforts now. Furthermore, it housed an incredible cover of Bauhaus’ classic “Dark Entry”. Running off the momentum of “Cassette”, the band continued to tour and record, and finally bore their long awaited and greatly hyped self-titled debut in January of 2015. Lofty critical acclaim followed suit, as the record drew attention from many, if not all major music publications and reviewers alike. The blend of post-punk influences drew many a liking amongst fans new and old of a storied, often misunderstood genre and movement. However, with the blooming onslaught of attention and praise came pronounced dissenters, not necessarily of the music itself, but of the band’s name. Allusions to the National Liberation Front, infamously dubbed the “Viet Cong” during the Vietnam War sparked both outrage and controversy for the band, causing protests outside concerts, on college campuses, and elsewhere where the band’s music was publicized and performed. The overwhelming reaction (including a cancelled show) on both sides convicted Viet Cong as a band to announce in a lengthy Facebook post a (still to be determined) name change, to emphasize the primary dedication to their craft as musicians versus re-opening old wounds and stirring up conflict amongst their audience.
Viet Cong’s self-titled full length debut shuttles off with booming drums and minor third harmonies opening up the album on “Newspaper Spoons”, with a confusingly ominous synth leading into “Pointless Experience”, leaving neither an essence of joy nor sadness, but more a morose gloom. Lead singer Matthew Flegel, now given spotlight front and center on vocals in the band, injects a new flavor of eeriness into the music. Compare this to riding shotgun in his last band, Women, where his brother Patrick assumed duties as the primary lyricist and singer. As dark and moaning as Patrick, Matthew invokes a much shakier, jittery delivery on the first four tracks of Viet Cong, not before letting out raspy screams on “Bunker Buster”, as well as versatile, falsetto as the climax of “Silhouettes” screeches to a halt, coming back down to earth in a crash landing of cymbals. Flegel often times tag teams with with lead guitar Scott “Monty” Munro as well, where Flegal’s desperate vocal impresario is complemented by the tormented harmonies of Munro, making for a wonderful concoction of melody channeling primetime output by The Chameleons circa “Script of the Bridge” and layered vocals reminiscent of This Heat on their masterpiece, “Deceit”. Viet Cong wears their influences as flamboyantly as is to be expected by an entire budding post-punk revival scene in general, but their strongsuit is primarily driven by their ability to meld the hodgepodge of sounds into one cohesive package.
Viet Cong is indeed short and sweet, with no fat to be trimmed at just seven tracks total. The first three songs serve as a wave of mellower, standard rock tracks, given the catalyst label to lead into an abrasive second half of the record. “March of Progress” comes in on the latter of side one with complex drums pounding like a heartbeat, switching time signatures back and forth between each pursuing measure. A bleak synth lurks in the background until a few minutes in when the listener has journeyed to a new universe of Flegal’s ghostly, chanting vocals, bracing his audience for the sheer power of what is to come. Viet Cong is captivating on “Bunker Buster” and going forward. Each progressing track is brimming with a new confidence. Each manic guitar line, complete with the building tension of bursting drums and wailing vocals captivates in a waving crescendo of noise mixed with brooding melody. “Silhouettes” hearkens to a breakneck version of Joy Division, with synths leading the fury of riffs and Flegal’s “oohs” and “ahhs”, preparing for Viet Cong’s grand finale. “Death” arrives just 25 minutes into the record, an untimely fate. The epic eleven minute conclusion is what I like to think of as Viet Cong’s own trump card to Women’s “Eyesore”. Separated into three parts, it begins with noodling guitar and driving drums, transitioning into a claustrophobic chamber of each instrument building and building to the ultimate climax of crashing cymbals and perfect unleashing of all the tension that had pent up over the course of the entire Viet Cong experience.
Not to sound too much like Rick McCallum, but every one of these songs churned out are so dense, so complex, bursting with equal parts firepower and slithering dark aura, all coming together to form a most-cohesive package. Technically speaking, it’s not by any means groundbreaking guitar work, but the inventive writing for a budding post-punk revival speaks volumes to the band’s stature in the “indiesphere”. Guitar dominated music is a supposedly dead narrative in 2015, but Viet Cong amongst others are keeping it afloat with ever-increasing pursuit. Tack on impressive time signatures and fluid cohesiveness amongst the guitars and drums, and Viet Cong makes for an extremely compelling listen.
Viet Cong’s debut record being only seven tracks long and roughly 37 minutes running provides for high replayability and quick playthroughs. This proves a short listen, but also a walloping burst of energy and noise nonetheless. In a growing “post-punk revival” over the last few years, new and upcoming bands, much like their counterparts of old reach into their grab bags of influences and experimentations to bring forth new and exciting outputs of creative art and expression. The difference here with our present day exemplifiers of post-punk revolves more around the music and feelings surrounding it, as opposed to an ethos of artful expression of beliefs and self-evident truths ready to be instilled to a world of both followers and dissenters. It’s harder to say a band like Viet Cong or their contemporaries are on the same level of prudent yet rebellious zeal reminiscent of the formations of the post-punk scenes across the globe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s not their fault though, nor is it the primary goal of a record such as this. You see that in such controversies as the one surrounding their band name. As a collective, the band made a careful decision to change their name (still to be determined), and that reflects a characteristic of belief apt to today’s day and age. The music is not made or broken as a result of christening their group one thing or another. Instead, they let it speak for itself. It’s hard to imagine bands like Joy Division or Throbbing Gristle would change their names in spite of any dissent or social pressures. We live in a different cultural landscape, where a band like Viet Cong approaches their image and ethos with a new 21st century fervor. Like the “Planateer” kids announcing their “team beam” of powers combining before changing into the final form that is Captain Planet, Viet Cong channeled the hype and churned out one of 2015’s most memorable debuts. Hey, maybe “Captain Planet” should be their new band name!
-Where does this rank in your favorite post-punk records this year/last couple of years?
-Have you been to a show before with people protesting the band outside the venue?
-What influences do you see in the music (other bands, musical stylings, etc.)
-New band name predictions?
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