By Sam Drezner
I was unsure what to expect when Preoccupations walked on stage to begin their set. Throughout their short history, the Calgary-based band has had many identities. They emerged in 2012 from the ashes of angular post-punk band Women (vocalist and bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace were members). Initially taking the name Viet Cong, they issued a self-titled EP in 2013, taking their angular origins in a darker direction. They followed that up with an album in 2015, also titled Viet Cong. The LP saw Preoccupations continue the darker turn, adding more gothy synths and feedback. After changing their name to Preoccupations, the band issued yet another self-titled album in 2016. Preoccupations’ evolution continued: some new songs were completely absent of guitars, and Wolf Parade vocalist Dan Boeckner was even brought in for “Memory.” Their March release, New Material, (their first release not to be self-titled) continues this evolution, albeit taking a more melodic and dreamier turn. While Preoccupations has been consistently labeled as “post-punk” throughout their career, they have taken numerous evolutions inside a genre that spans from Depeche Mode to Throbbing Gristle. I wondered, would Preoccupations stick to the “new material,” or would they play their old cuts? How would they follow up on opener Rattle’s brand of tribal drum-only music, or Protomartyr’s caustic and philosophical post-punk?
When Preoccupations began their set with New Material’s closer, “Compliance,” I got something that hadn’t even crossed my mind pre-show: a startlingly loud blast of noise. The studio version of “Compliance” consists of repetitive, distorted synthesizers, becoming gradually louder as the song progresses. I was especially shocked to feel the floor vibrating in what was supposed to be the quietest part of the song. As it did on the album, the song got louder as it progressed. Bright lights danced wildly around the room, and the noise from Preoccupations’ instruments was inescapable. Although I am not a Christian, Preoccupations’ performance of “Compliance” is what I imagine the rapture to be like. While it may not be for everyone, I had the time of my life. “Compliance” was the perfect entrance music for Preoccupations’ set. It was followed by three of Preoccupations’ most accessible singles “Continental Shelf,” “Espionage,” and “Silhouettes.” Even though the melodies in those songs still remained loud and clear, the boisterous noise of Preoccupations’ instruments was still ever-present. It was no less rapture-esque; Preoccupations had not turned the volume down one bit from “Compliance.” My question of whether Preoccupations would stay with their new stuff or go back to the old was also answered then: both “Continental Shelf” and “Silhouettes” are off of the Viet Cong LP.
After “Silhouettes,” Flegel made his only extended remark to the audience of the entire set. He thanked us for coming out to the Brighton Music Hall on a cold and rainy Monday night. After a short break from the noise, Preoccupations got right back into the rhythm of things, with three songs from New Material, “Antidote,” “Doubt,” and “Disarray,” in succession. Preoccupations’ amps still seemed to be turned to the maximum setting. In this apocalyptic atmosphere, lyrics such as “Information overdose, looking for antidotes,” “We can’t help ourselves,” and even “Disarray, Disarray, Disarray” took on an even darker and depressive aura than they had on New Material. Whatever deity was conducting this rapture took a rather dim view of humanity.
For the final three songs of their set, Preoccupations ventured into their more experimental selections. The third-to-last song was a flawless performance of their eleven-minute three-parter, “Memory,” off their self-titled LP. Flegel admirably filled in for Boeckner’s vocals, looking like he was ready to shout himself hoarse for a week, behind soaring squalls of feedback from guitars and synthesizers. The high volume gave the four-minute ambient guitar outro a powerful presence. Eleven minutes went by in a jiffy. Preoccupations followed “Memory” with “March of Progress,” another multi-part song featuring yet another awesome feedback-filled crescendo. Preoccupations concluded their set with an electric performance of “Death,” their closer from the Viet Cong LP. Their performance stretched beyond the song’s eleven minute runtime, by virtue of an even longer version of the noisy and intricate second part that bordered on sludge metal. When I was fully grooving to the middle part of “Death” (which I had previously overlooked on the studio version), Preoccupations switched to the final part, a fast-paced and punk-influenced piece of music. Despite the fact that they had been playing for nearly an hour by that point, no member of Preoccupations seemed the least bit tired. Flegel shouted like he was in a competition with the instruments to see who could be the loudest. Wallace pounded on his drums with speed and ferocity that would make the Energizer Bunny blush. Preoccupations’ performance of “Death” perfectly encapsulated their set: noisy and relentless, but never lacking in groove or melody. In total, Preoccupations’ performance at Brighton Music Hall was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. My only regret was that I forgot to bring earplugs.