Preoccupations have a command of the supernatural. This is a function of goth rock, the deeper stuff, using reverb and echo and chorused bass to create portals to the other side, seance circles of sound where ghosts drift through ugly and hungry. There is a lot of Joy Division in Arrangements, but drawing from the wells of Closer rather than Unknown Pleasures, trading in the punky rounded bass tones and sense of looseness for the stern witness of marble angels stained with miraculous tears. This in turn sees Preoccupations swing back toward the true depths of their power. New Material was good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked that sinister and magical edge of their (second, after the name change) self-titled album, whose velvet knife slipped between the ribs slow and sensual to let your guts spill out. Part of it comes from dialing down some of the romantic and New Wave tendencies which cropped up on New Material, which nudged the dial up on things like sophisti-pop and art rock edges to their ultimately goth rock core. Those adjustments, of course, made sense, all being derived from the mingling brackish waters of post-punk and its derivative progressive genre fusions of the ’80s. But the return shown on Arrangements sees them plucking key elements from these exercises and applying them back to the cavernous hallways and haunted mansions of that earlier work.
Their cover art remains, as always, a perfect window to the content. Abstract geometry, the loneliness of architecture: all a perfect containing shell to the egg. There are people that don’t like modern art, non-representational forms, can’t seem to feel anything from it, and that’s a shame. The cover art appears almost like some strange mutated figure struggling to be born, real Gramscian stuff. That existential agony is palpable, as clearly communicate as anxiety was on Preoccupations and collapsing paranoid romance on New Material. There are wafts of the post-suicidal fugue, I am trying to be here, the struggle to remain in existence after the void spat you back out onto the ground cold, wet and, frustratingly, still living. It’s the kind of riveting existential angst that powers records like this, the beating imagistic heart of gothic music. Preoccupations, ever as always, remain disciplined with their work. It lacks the effusive edge of something like emo or more traditional progressive rock, even that of most punk and metal, keeping the cards close to the chest so what communicates clearest is a cold menacing distance. Distance from: comfort, warmth, safety, peace of mind. Anxiety returns here, black teeth from the mouth of the pit. But then, the band lets their cards slip, like on “Death of Melody” (coincidentally, one of the band’s first tracks since the name change to not feature one-word titles). There, the melody burbles and tumbles out of the band, keening and forward, almost like someone bursting suddenly into tears.
If Cloud Nothings is a band that matured before our eyes to seemingly perfectly capture the evolving angsts and tension states of adulthood through its years, from struggles toward personhood and release of trauma to the sudden clearing of moss from the headstone when you realize certain things seem to stay inside you forever, then Preoccupations is their abstracted psychic twin. Freud, a better literary critic than psychologist, has a theory he proposes in The Uncanny called the “doppelganger,” where the eerieness and unnerving comes from seeing something that is a near perfect replica of us. It confronts us to witness as an outside what we must appear and be like to those around us, our comforting illusions ripped away. This feels like what Preoccupations is best at, using their sound not to create fantasy but to grip fiercely the edges of the compartmentalized sorrows and pains and anxieties we file away within ourselves before tearing away the lids. This is the primal force of Joy Division, a band that was uncannily perfect at this feat, that many of their copycats failed to replicate, focusing more on the sound than on the use of sound. This is savage and forceful stuff, ready to catch you unawares and leave you crying at your desk, a cruel mirror and soft hand pushing away the soil in your chest to unbury hidden things.
Label: Flemish Eye
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.