There are a few things that most Preoccupations songs have in common. They generally bear single-word titles, for one, and those words are generally pretty grim. “Anxiety,” “Degraded” and “Monotony” were some of the highlights of the band’s 2016 self-titled sophomore album. And their debut album as Viet Cong in 2015 (which had some two-word titles to be fair) closed out with the 11-minute noise-rock breakdown with the most-goth title of all: “Death.” This isn’t out of the ordinary for a post-punk band—artists have been mining this bleak aesthetic for four decades now, and it hasn’t worn out its welcome yet. Preoccupations are no exception, other than being exceptional at making something new and interesting out of a seemingly never-out-of-fashion sort of gloom, a gloom that permeates their third album, New Material.
A scan of the tracklist reveals some things haven’t changed for the band. “Decompose,” “Disarray,” “Manipulation,” “Doubt”—these are the marks of a band that haven’t found reasons to turn to celebration just yet. Even “Solace” is a red herring, the song instead finding vocalist Matt Flegel describing exactly a scenario that Preoccupations fans know all too well: “Seeking solace in shadows…Everything is falling apart.” Sunshine is in short supply here, but in its place are some of the band’s strongest pop songs yet.
What Preoccupations cast off in the way of lengthy, cacophonous dirges like “Death” or brief, experimental pieces such as “Sense” and “Forbidden” they make up for with a consistent sequence of taut, urgent post-punk jams. Leadoff track “Espionage” is as direct as the band has ever sounded, juxtaposing Blade Runner synths with a driving goth-rock bassline and a furious call and response chorus: “We are bound!—Till we’re deeper in a dead sea.” Cascades of chords provide a slightly piercing complement to the hypnotic rhythm of “Decompose,” while “Disarray” takes what would have been the album’s most accessible song and plays Tetris with its time signature. And on the booming pulse of “Antidote,” Flegel has a slight Bowie-in-”Golden Years” affectation as he makes his way through the opening lines, “Sending current down the barbed wire/Burning currency in bonfires.”
Much as New Material is washed in blacks, grays and charcoals, it maintains a brilliant glow in its best moments, reminding that darkness as musical motif never loses its seductive allure. While the album is in large part a continuation of an aesthetic that Preoccupations established three years ago, it’s one whose novelty hasn’t worn off. More importantly, it continues to be a fertile resource through which the band refine their songwriting. Preoccupations always played well in the shadows, and New Material is proof enough that they can still manipulate them to their advantage.
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