“My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever,” said Preoccupations multi-instrumentalist Scott Munro in a statement about the band’s latest album New Material. It’s an unsurprising assertion coming from a band that has always confidently followed their own rules as they straddle the line between humanity and the brutish force of their music.
Examinations of creation, destruction and the ways that we often practice the two in vain have regularly been tethered to the Canadian post-punk band’s work—even going back to their days as Viet Cong. And while that’s quite a downcast undertaking, it’s one that goes hand-in-hand with Preoccupations’ dystopian-future-sounding music. With their third LP, New Material, they dive into it headlong, getting closer to Munro’s stated goal than ever before.
They kick things off on a decidedly ‘80s note with “Espionage,” the synths, skeletal beat, and Flegel’s dramatic vocals sounding like a twisted, bleaker version of Depeche Mode. It’s dark and grinding, but still so danceable it could be an alternate soundtrack the scene in The Breakfast Club where they’re all gettin’ down—cue Judd Nelson hanging off of that weird hand statue thing. On “Decompose,” the unrelenting, singular beat from Mike Wallace’s drums and the solitary, swiped chord of some kind of eastern harp are softened by Flegel’s pointedly dreamy vocals, the only relief from the cyclical, driving rhythm getting beaten in to your skull. Sonically, “Disarray” takes a nod or two from the “Disorder” version of Joy Division. Lyrically, it’s a study in harnessing the chaos and discord of life, while acknowledging the futility of doing so. Flegel sings the title over and over, making a pattern of a word whose definition means exactly the opposite.
By the time “Antidote,” another exercise in martial, circular, unflinching rhythm kicks in, it becomes clear that this is music that conjures up a world in grey (concrete, steel, overcast skies), with the monotonal album cover and one-word song titles like, “Doubt” and “Manipulation” only adding to the stark, clinical aura. Even still, the songs retain that crucial element of humanity, present in “Antidote” via Flegel’s impassioned vocals, and the surprisingly singable hook. That hook serves as a slight parting of the clouds, a bit of sun peeking through that tides you over until the aptly named “Solace.” Musically, this is as open as it gets, a bit of warmth seeping through in the looser drumming and chiming guitars. “Everything is falling apart/and we all have confessions to make,” Flegel states matter of factly, “And all the things that you’ve ever loved/Effectively will never be spoken of/Again.” So much for solace.