Canadian art rock band Women disbanded in 2012, and ex-members Matthew Flegel and Michael Wallace formed Viet Cong almost immediately afterwards. They released an EP, Cassette, in 2013, but this is the first LP we’ve seen from the band. The elephant-sized question in the room is: Is this album really a Viet Cong debut, or is it just another Women album? I bet there are some folks out there who would be perfectly content with another Women album, but after getting through the first few tracks of Viet Cong, it’s easy to see that this band is scooping up the darker bits of a 1980s, post-punk stew of influences that Women could never cook up.
To be honest, the first couple songs of Viet Cong aren’t very memorable. There’s the lo-fi tribal drums and dreamy electronica on “Newspaper Spoons,” and there’s the rhythmic guitar that doesn’t really go anywhere on “Pointless Experience” – these two songs sound like prototypical Women songs. But after getting through the marching drums that ironically don’t progress for over two minutes on “March of Progress” and the oriental strings and gentle harmonies that sound similar to Women’s “Heat Distraction,” there’s a low, ominous hum, and the song turns into what sounds like a New Order hit put on top of bursting Sonic Youth guitars. To put it bluntly, it sounds awesome, and in my mind this is when the band Viet Cong really starts and Women ends.
“Bunker Buster” gives us guitars that interrupt each other at odd tempos, but it’s surprisingly catchy. For the first half of this song there’s still those typical muffled Women vocals, but then Flegel shouts, “What side are you on, man? We look the same,” and the interrupting guitars really screech and growl to finish off the song with a great two-minute instrumental that’s louder than any Women album.
And then there’s the single, “Continental Shelf,” which features the heaviest guitars on the album – it really does sound like a continental shelf sliding off into the ocean. Flegel goes back and forth between nearly-talking and nearly-shouting vocals that make the song sound like a B-side to Turn On The Bright Lights. Then Flegel really embraces his Interpol-influenced vocals on “Silhouettes” while angular guitar that sounds extremely similar to that opening guitar on Bloc Party’s “Helicopter” wails and builds throughout. Luckily, Viet Cong adds some dance-worthy 1980s synth in the background to make this song more their own and not just an Interpol-Bloc Party baby.
When writing all of this, though, I’ve mostly just been excited to write about “Death,” the save-the-best-for-last track on the album. At 11 minutes, “Death” sounds like a medley of brooding songs each drawing from their own dark influence. The first few minutes features a steady jangling guitar and deep “oh oh oh oh ooooh”s that sound like a loud Smiths song; and then “Death” goes into a long, jamming instrumental that could just as easily been on Daydream Nation, except the drums are way more persistently pounding. The song slows down into another instrumental – a two-chord, off-tempo Swans howl that lasts for a good two minutes before suddenly dancing back into a up-tempo Women song with those jangling, oriental strings again. The song ends with Flegel screaming and nearly hacking onto relentless drums, and it leaves you wanting more Viet Cong. Also, here's a fun, hipster-music fact: There’s a video of Viet Cong playing “Death” live, and you can clearly see fellow Canadian Mac DeMarco with a goofy DeMarco smile on his face when that last Swans-to-Women transition happens.
Sure, Viet Cong is pulling from a ton of influences that makes it questionable how original this album is, but where else am I going to hear The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Swans, and Interpol all in one place? Even though I can’t help but think, “Hmmm, this sounds a lot like ____” when I listen to a Viet Cong song (come on – even the faded, fleshy album cover looks like a Smiths album), I’m willing to forgive them for their master ability to tie these influences together in a natural way. After getting through those first two too-Women-like songs, Viet Cong is a brooding jam that’s likely to be one of the better albums of the year.
8.0 / 10
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