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New Moniker, Same Sound

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You don’t need a detailed analysis to parse the meanings behind Preoccupations’ self-titled 2016 debut album. Just look at the titles of its songs — “Anxiety,” “Monotony,” “Degraded,” “Fever” — and that’s all you’ll need.

“We put it pretty much right out there for you,” Matt Flegel, the bassist, singer, and chief songwriter for the post-punk band, says. “I wanted to be heavy-handed about the song titles, and I think I accomplished that.”

If there is an overt sense of turmoil, pain, and uncertainty within the band, it is not unfounded. After putting out two highly-celebrated albums under its former name, Viet Cong, the group received significant criticism from Southeastern Asian community groups for taking on the moniker of an infamous guerilla outfit. Many advocates felt that the group’s title was offensive and inappropriate, and several of the band’s concerts were cancelled as a result.

In September 2015, the group announced it would change its name. Nine months later, they were rebranded as the considerably-more benign Preoccupations.

“It’s been insane,” says Flegel, who previously played in the now-defunct band Women alongside Preoccupations’ drummer Mike Wallace. “We were on the road so much that we didn’t know about the whole name controversy until people started coming to our shows with picket signs and megaphones. It was a crazy learning experience, and I think we’re all happy to have kinda survived that.”

Like their prior two releases, the band’s latest album, which came out on September 16, is an edgy, suffocating endeavor, full of spiky guitars, ghostly synth movements,and metallic white noise. Flegel’s lead vocals take on a deeper register for this album, adding to its menacing aura. It’s a fitting continuation for a band that has made no bones about its love for traditional post-punk music from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (re: Bauhaus, Joy Division, Wire, etc.)

Yet for all its dark moments — and there are plenty of them, and deservedly so — the latest Preoccupations album is not a mordant, overwhelmingly bleak creation. There are instances of surprising levity — flourishes that one could almost call pretty, which is a shocking descriptor for a band that favors gritty, industrial sounds.

Take, for example, album opener “Anxiety,” a haunting dirge that starts with an eerie makeup of shrill, atonal guitar sounds. Just as the song appears destined to travel down a dark, gothic path, it’s interrupted by a jaunty, buoyant keyboard melody. Those interludes break up the heaviness, and the song closes out in hushed, warm synths.

The album’s centerpiece, the 11-minute epic “Memory,” is again shadowed in sonic soot — full of unnerving background noises and undertones of feedback and distortion. But like “Anxiety,” that song reaches a breaking point midway through when guest vocalist Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Operators) provides a lithe, powerful aural sermon that contrasts warmly with Flegel’s lower delivery.

“I think we were trying to create as much atmosphere as possible with this album,” Flegel says. “We used a lot of synths on the last Viet Cong album, but this time they were recorded higher in the mix and the guitars were toned down just a bit. We added some of the lighter elements almost as a palate cleanser to the more gritty stuff.”

While Flegel’s lyrics can be uncompromising and cynical (he penned most of the songs while travelling in a cramped van en route to over 200 shows last year), by the end of the album, there’s a slight optimism. The closing track, “Fever,” is a synth-heavy, nearly-danceable ditty that has Flegel singing hopefully, “You’re not scared/ Carry your fever away from here.”

These brief instances of cheeriness are probably because the band is still a tight-knit group that has soldiered through a rough year and made it out unharmed.

“We’re all still really close,” Flegel says. “It hasn’t been perfect, but what we have seems to be working for us so far. And if things tank after this album, you know, I’ll happily fade back into obscurity.”

Preoccupations play at 9 p.m., on Saturday, Oct. 29 and Sunday, Oct. 30 at The Independent. More info here.

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Will Reisman @j_schiewe

Jessie Schiewe was the Music Editor for SF Weekly from Fall 2015 to Summer 2017. She is now the editor and publisher of OK Whatever (www.okwhatever.org), an online publication dedicated to all things weird and strange. You can send her mail at jessie@okwhatever.org.

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