Viet Cong Viet Cong

[Jagjaguwar; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: post-punk, NAIR, 2003
Others: Les Savy Fav, British Sea Power, Women

This winter has been brutal so far, so I’m appreciative for whatever warms me. Not that Viet Cong is an album that exudes warmth — at least not overtly — but it is there, insulated under brittle layers of loathing and disaffection. Musically speaking, Viet Cong’s angular, soupy melange of danceable post-punk and turn-of-the-millennium NAIR is hardly more lighthearted. Sometimes the band’s like a bizarro Interpol, hailing from an alternate universe where Wire or Gang of Four were more influential than Joy Division; elsewhere, Viet Cong sound like At The Drive-In performing a joke about Phish. But yet, despite some questionable, off-putting decisions, there’s a wistful, melancholic temperature to this eponymous debut, one belied by the band’s sophomoric war metaphors and rubbery noodling, and it makes their self-titled debut one of the most essential records of the season for me.

Part of Viet Cong’s charm stems from the fact that the band almost never swings for the fences. If this were 2003, then this sort of twitchy and sinus-infected mope-rock might’ve belonged to some sort of greater cultural conversation. Twelve years later, Viet Cong’s particular brand of guitar-based music has fallen about as far out of vogue as possible in this post-internet age. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t other bands presently circling the same orbit; Merchandise, for one, comes to mind, the difference here being that whereas Merchandise wasted little time sanding down their rougher edges, Viet Cong lean into those edges, and in doing so, soft-sells their own intrinsic appeal. Ugly music often forces you to work to enjoy it, and as you know, arbeit macht frei having to work for something sometimes makes you appreciate it all the more. “March of Progress,” for example, begins with a clipped, blunt, and nearly three-minute-long groove. Frontman Matt Flegel doesn’t start singing until halfway through the song, and yet, even then, there’s still time left for another unexpected detour through arrhythmic and discordant territory. While I’m convinced that there’s an element of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, it takes a serious amount of planning to sound so spontaneously disjointed.

For all of Viet Cong’s well-worn ugliness — not least of which their immature tendency to conflate personal suffering with historical atrocity — their desperate, life-or-death romanticism ultimately leaves a stronger impression than mere shock value. Women, Viet Cong’s defunct predecessor, was plenty ugly too, but their psych-punk endeavors were more clinical and less committed to excavating veins of sincerity. “Continental Shelf,” Viet Cong’s lead single and emotional outlier, combines Wolf Parade’s gallop with British Sea Power’s grandeur, though lacking the aloof, postmodern distance of either. A summary of “Continental Shelf’s” virtues might make it sound rote, overripe, or inessential, except the interplay between its two modes creates a tension that aches, practically begging for relief, which in this case comes in the form of uncharacteristically angelic backing vocals. In that sense, “Continental Shelf” is something of a keystone for the rest of Viet Cong; once you notice the band’s furtive romanticism, it becomes impossible to ignore.

Even at its coldest, Viet Cong offers a suggestion of something — deep yearning or stifled swooning — which balances out the tiresome nihilism. “Pointless Experience’s” whole “if we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die” thing is melodramatic, yet it serves as a reminder of the terrible and indelible sensations of youth, a distant emotional memory that still flickers somewhere within me. I’m old enough to know that music rarely changes lives, but nevertheless, here I am, staring out a window at another interminable winter, wondering when, if ever, life will become more hospitable to itself, when will it get better. For all I know or care, this record will be forgotten by summer, when such questions are banished from thought; but for now, only music this severe can soothe my seasonal affectation. And this is what it means for music to be essential to me; it’s not so much an evaluation of objective quality or appeal, but the acknowledgement that it has helped me to more positively contextualize all the feelings I try to stifle until this shitty season gives way to another that’s less inhumane, and in that, Viet Cong perform the most critical function that music can, an act of transubstantiation that turns nihilism into an antidote for itself. What could be more essential than that?

Links: Viet Cong - Jagjaguwar

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