Despondence casts a dark shadow on Viet Cong’s self-titled debut album. Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace have brought a significant amount of baggage from their time in the emotive indie rock group Women, but Viet Cong’s music signals an opportunity to eradicate their demons once and for all. Viet Cong’s vision of the world around them resembles a faded photograph that has just caught fire. At one point, the picture was a symbol of better times, but now it only reminds you how much has changed since then. For Viet Cong, setting fire to that deceptive image of happiness is the only way to purge their eroded psyches.
With all this talk of low spirits, it’s quite striking how immensely enjoyable Viet Cong is. Inevitably, their music has been labeled as post-punk with its brittle percussion, darkened rhythms, and distorted guitars, but the diversity the album grants is nothing short of exciting. Throughout the seven tracks, there are doses of psychedelic rock, noise rock, and art rock that coagulate naturally. Sure, Viet Cong is rather bleak in its concept, but its presentation allows the musicianship to dazzle. Lines like, “If we’re lucky we’ll get old and die” and “No reason for being awake” on “Pointless Experience” are unapologetically stark, but they are escorted by an infectious groove and a stunning bass line that make the record’s nihilism easier to swallow.
Viet Cong takes advantage of this variety to surprise at any given moment. “March of Progress” opens with nearly three minutes of discombobulating drums overpowering the gentle atmosphere below it. However, the song then crosses through a psychedelic portal that with a series of vocal melodies that would make Syd Barrett proud. What makes Viet Cong such an interesting band is their ability to ascend high beyond the dread that fuels much of their songwriting. “Continental Shelf” is a perfect example, a song about a tormented man being asphyxiated by the cruel world around him. And yet, the jangly guitars, the towering, ethereal soundscapes that contrast the waves of cacophony, infused with Flegel’s impassioned delivery yield a captivating piece of pop music that sounds as liberating as it does gripping. It’s not preposterous to hear traces of The Smiths and Joy Division in Viet Cong’s sonic palette, but the band’s aesthetic takes pride in subverting their influences as well. Final statement, “Death”, avoids the structure that a few of the other tracks embrace and journeys into a winding passage of self-discovery.
Viet Cong occupies an intriguing middle ground between raw and lush. Often the drums are primordial in presentation, but the band offsets their grit with wonderfully layered guitars and synthesizers. Though these facets sometimes seem at odds with one another, the result is never overbearing. The bouncy rhythm of “Bunker Buster” shows how Viet Cong can take an idea and sharpen it to the extent in which it’s both immediate and confounding. The album is over in a flash, but Viet Cong leave an imprint worth reexamining.
With their debut LP, Viet Cong gravitate toward dim landscapes only to ignite them with catharsis. Not only is this one of the best post-punk revival albums to emerge in recent memory, but it is also one with staying power. Viet Cong offer a provocative worldview, but their impressive sonic craft lends great rewards of its own in the form of memorable vocal melodies, riveting guitars, and creative production. They’re still keeping us at arm’s length, but we’re now close enough to feel the heat.
March of Progress