Viet Cong was a derogatory term used by Western military forces to indicate the body of individuals who comprised the Southern Vietnamese army. By the tail-end of the war, to this day the only international confrontation the U.S. has outwardly and obviously lost, the Viet Cong included both Northern and Southern Vietnamese agitators, men and women, the elderly and the adolescent, motivated by the vigor of their political indoctrination and an unfailing sense of personal retribution: The interests of the Viet Cong approximately reflected those of the entire country. They were the Western world’s most fearful adversary, not due to their unassuming appearances or their primitive guerrilla warfare tactics or their sophisticated knowledge of the unwieldy terrain, but because they had something dear and definite to fight for.
This background, while not altogether necessary, can certainly lend a more thorough reading on the Calgary based industrial post-punk foursome Viet Cong and their brutalized and beautiful self-titled debut. It’s an incensed record, an insurgent cry for occupation articulated over seven tracks. Absolute melody ushers forth from this surging onslaught of fire and brimstone guitar music, hard and heavy on the low-end, bright and booming on the high, as chugging processions of wily rock hysterics plod and palpitate with unquestionable immediacy. The driving force of album opener “Newspaper Spoons” is this vaulting cavalcade of slow-moving timpani drum rolls, while frontman Matt Flegel howls mantra-like platitudes at his own shadow. The track feels stiflingly tight until a surge of gossamer-thin synthesizer melodies come cartwheeling at zero gravity.
Like the bewildering concept of “Newspaper Spoons,” the unrealized connection between two seemingly incongruous ideas is explored on the band’s first effort–2014’s initially tour-only, self-released “Cassette” EP (later issued on tape via Mexican Summer)—during tracks like “Structureless Design” and “Unconscious Melody.” The EP, which contains as many tracks as its predecessor, is a clear feat that easily could’ve been promoted as a stand-alone full-length. But where that release is subversively idealistic, blanketed in a kind of halycon naiveté, Viet Cong is incredibly nervous, paranoid from all the deranged atmospherics polluting our present-day humanity.
On the second song, “Pointless Experience,” Flegel sings many soaring, eerily overdubbed hooks, but none are as poignant as the chorus line, “We’re desperately debilitated / If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die.” The word “die” is sung in three nearly discordant layers of vocal harmony that fail to evoke the melodrama and performative pessimism conveyed on most of the record’s lyrical sentiments. These words feel clean, cold and devastatingly matter of fact. The suffocating sound of death found throughout Viet Cong (hear album closer “Death”) is made all the more disturbing by the band’s catalyst for conception: In 2011, Matt Flegel and Monty Munro (who at the time were members of Women and Lab Coat, respectively) casually flirted with the idea of starting to a band, but made nothing concrete until their close friend and musical cohort (Women’s guitarist) Christopher Reimer died in his sleep. “It was like, ‘Shit, we’re going to die, fuck,'” said Flegel in an interview with Pitchfork. “Let’s do something before it ends.”
The third track, “March of Progress” is the Viet Cong‘s tour de force, an unprecedented jubilee of neurotic, nearly algorithmic, noise rock. Initially caught in a repetitious circuit of ambient droning, “March of Progress” is derelict and disengaged, as sprawling and shape-shifting as it is curiously uplifting. (The first words spoken (“Lately there’s a wound that needs some healing / Before the infection can set in”) point to the record’s album art, the process of changing the dressing and pursuing a swift recovery.) When those fiery, alternating guitar parts finally duel it out at 2:51, they shiver and shake the way stars do at 40,000 feet. Together, propulsive drums and the reverberant twang of fighting guitar lines burst and bang like automatic gunfire. Flegel’s searing falsetto yelp, “Tell me, tell me, tell it to me, tell it straight / What is the difference between love and hate?” is a loud and liberating call to action that aptly sets the mood for what’s to come.
The album’s lead singles “Continental Shelf” and “Silhouttes” are nestled unexpectedly on the B-side, touching toes with the eleven-minute closing track “Death.” The politics of sequencing, here, seem to quietly de-emphasize the singles, which are more straightforward and less unruly than other Viet Cong cuts but nonetheless dynamic. We’ve been worked up, well prepared for the post-punk revival, pop sensible leanings presented, calloused and calamitous as they may be. When Flegel croons on “Silhouettes”, “Ahhh, oooo, ohhhhhh” it’s an unintelligible string of moans and groans that are somehow more effectively affecting, more powerful and insurgent and impenetrably resistance than his more plaintive and comprehensible lyrics.
“Death” is organic, fluid, woven together with violent vamps that illuminate a clear link to how these tracks may have been conceived: strokes of improvisatory brilliance through insensate jamming. It’s a largely lyric-less track that diverts and disorients the listener with frequently collapsing sonic structures. Out of its dispelled wake comes something new and vehement. “Anchor to the bottom / Floating to the surface you can see much higher,” Flegel sings somewhat despondently before howling out, clinging desperately to that last word, “We’ll never get old.” Sure, this lyric conflates the anxieties about death that had already been established (in rather listless hyperbole), but to consider it a detracting end note to the narrative arc Viet Cong would nothing short of fucking foolish.
In an extremely concise musical statement, in one fell swoop, Viet Cong cower away from the emotional strain of mortality only to, eventually, laugh in its face. More pervasive than existential crises, though, the sonic immediacy and proto-punk ethos of Viet Cong speak to the same energies shared by participants of The People’s Climate March or those who believe black lives matter and took to the streets to reinforce it—a contentious will to rise above the virtually unanimous cry of “Yes” and say “No.”