Viet Cong - Cassette

Art rockers Viet Cong—severally from Women, Sharp Ends, Lab Coast, Reuben and the Dark—make a tour-only EP cassette. Scratch tour-only. Scratch cassette.

Additional Info

7.2

ALBUM: Cassette

ARTIST: Viet Cong

2014

Alternative

At first it sounds like an irreconcilable gimmick: the MP3 version of an EP called Cassette. The paradox of listening to this EP on an iTunes player—a digital optimization of occasionally demagnetized post-punk—diminishes the bootleg ephemerality of Viet Cong’s debut. Tour-only merchandising is one of the remaining vestiges of the live show. The commodification of broadsides, t-shirts, and cassette tapes is a way to entice would-be fans through the exclusive right to purchase. There’s a particular dissonance inherent to listening to the Mexican Summer reissue of Cassette then—the awareness that as a listener, you’ve breached implicit tour-only distribution—and it comes with the price of immediate loyalty to Viet Cong. The band, not the guerrilla communists.

It’s a small price to pay since, from the opening track, it feels as if Calgary-based Viet Cong is riding the first wave of British punk all the way to the shores of contemporary art rock, a delightful fusion of post-punk, garage rock, and math rock that is every bit as likeable and challenging as the 2014 debut from Montreal’s Ought. Vocalist Matt Flegel is a ringer for Joe Strummer as the rest of the Viet Cong concocts its own version of combat rock, from harmonized guitar riffs to dull tom pops from drummer Mike Wallace. While the opening track bears the traditional touchstones of proto-punk—in composition, timbre, and duration—the songs that follow are memorable for their idiosyncratic hairpins that divvy and dissociate. The prevailing mood of the EP is defiance and so the go-to move is abandon. The implosive techniques—abandoned key, rhythm, what have you—are not lurking on the songs’ horizons, but occur like spontaneous railroad switches, even apoptosis.

It’s not until track three, “Oxygen Feed,” that rickety production reminds listeners that they are, in fact, listening to a digitized cassette. The lo-fi persists into the next track, “Static Wall,” which sounds like an MGMT campfire séance under shimmery meteor shower siege. Songs like “Structureless Design” and “Select Your Drone” begin as pop, but melody is jettisoned for dead-end screech. The industrial jams are insubstantial—feedback mocking rail then siren—but manage to forge incomprehensible depth, muddy the palette.

Several motifs, from synthesizer codas to a Bauhaus cover, seem to be slippery ingredients that are not yet integrated into the Viet Cong aesthetic, but are tantalizing artifacts that hint at what to expect from the mid-fall full-length release, which Flegel told Exclaim! will be more cohesive, featuring “a little more doom and gloom, gothed-out ‘80s,” all inspired by Flegel’s obsession with The Cure. The full-length will be co-released by Chad VanGaalen’s Flemish Eye, a bittersweet but familiar genesis for Flegel and Wallace, who were both members of the defunct Calgary-based band Women.

“And all that we are is something to keep the shadows and sun apart from one another.”

1. Throw It Away
Viet Cong hoists the garage door as a Brit-affected syllable resuscitates garage rock, propelling the listener into the alley. The tied power chords are crisp with distortion as a light militaristic tom (1-2, 1-2-3) accompanies Matt Flegel’s conjuring of Strummer’s voice. It’s not a Clash revival, though. Here is the mustard seed of Viet Cong’s brand of art rock—more in the vein of Black Lips, Ought, or Fugazi than new-school mimicry. The elastic harmonized riffs that bloom as verse partitions—even inducing jam vibes—eventually recede as synth swivels behind grand repetition of “throw it away,” the garage equivalent of Styx beseeching “come sail away.”8.5
2. Unconscious Melody
Flegel’s vocal rhythm expands and contracts in “Unconscious Melody.” “I_openupabook” and “fallingoverbackwords” are rendered compound words due to unforeseen accelerando while the choruses’ long ē’s (“see”… “melody”… “circuitry”) dilate. The chorus is a hypnagogic croon whose spine-buzzing fuzz bass numbs like local anesthetic. One can hear tinges of reggae rock (à la Police) with the vocal charisma of Modern English’s Robbie Grey: “But the joy comes softly / the joy comes soft-ly!” The post-chorus interplay between crisp militant snare and high harmonic riff play recalls anxious, wound-up Cursive (“Art is Hard” sans Kasher).8.7
3. Oxygen Feed
The production level is markedly lower on this track as if “Oxygen Feed” is the sole song recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder as suggested by the album’s title. While it’s likely just a delayed wah effect, some chords warp so as to sound like demagnetized tape, an analog aura that reinforces the more jangly and psychedelic affect of this song. The simplicity of this song—from sentimental Roy Orbison hiccups to harmonic surf riffs to lo-tempo 4/4 drums—simmers the garage’s circuit breaker.7.0
4. Static Wall
Beginning with drips of synth and distant spooky campfire vocals, “Static Wall” sounds like an excellent B-side from MGMT’s Congratulations. By the end of the song, the psychedelia is full throttle; the drips turn into full celestial springs with a triangle that sounds like a pickaxe mining the moon. As with the last three songs, this track doesn’t develop beyond its original two-part constitution, though its sonic palette suggests that it could.7.7
5. Structureless Design
On “Structureless Design,” Viet Cong waxes philosophical. Its hit or miss logic (“all that we are is something to keep the shadows and sun apart from one another” vs. “nothing does not get old”) cements their ethereal art rock aspirations. The song itself is structureless; the initial video game-inspired bass that anchors the lofty lyrics is jettisoned for high-pitched guitar and rapid snare, the fastest tempo of the EP. The dissonance crescendos, and the yelling in the background is similar to what we heard earlier this year at the end of Ought’s More Than Any Other Day. Even if it does show evidence of range, Viet Cong lacks Ought’s finesse.6.4
6. Dark Entries
In this Bauhaus cover, replete with live wooting and feedback, Viet Cong embodies proto-goth rock. The spooky “London Dungeon” chord progression rings over hi-hat hiss and crisp snare. The background inverts to foreground as “dark entries!” is repeated like a rally call. It sounds like Wolf Parade covering Misfits, Flegel channeling Spencer Krug who’s channeling Danzig. The adrenaline surges most when the crowd shouts “dark entries” itself. The song ends as it began, with obligatory cheers, but also a confusing Todd Terje gastric organ coda.8.1
7. Select Your Drone
At almost six minutes, “Select Your Drone” is a gratuitous chunk of dissonant art rock. It starts with palm-muted bass and a single snare per measure while droning guitar plucks at two notes of a power chord. There are faint vocals beneath the surface, only registering when the droning guitar becomes softer. Tom-heavy rolls instate a tempo change. Locomotive guitars chug then squeal, opening up into what could have been a second movement. Instead, though, there are minutes of tepid dead-end anxious industrial rock. The track’s coda is slower this time like somber Ocarina of Time. It’s a late motif considering the brevity of the EP. After a consistently compelling first half, Cassette’s seconds half baffles.4.0
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.



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