SHADOWPLAY, A Post-Punk, Darkwave Overview – Viet Cong “Viet Cong,” October People “Love is Colder Than Death,” Bad Light District “Science of Dreams”

Viet Cong / October People / Bad Light District
Viet Cong / Love is Colder Than Death / Science of Dreams
Jagjaguwar / Bandcamp / Music is the Weapon

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viet cong image

Their history already well-known well before a release date was even mooted for their debut – ex-Women mainstay/bassist Matt Flegel has a fraternal falling out that dooms the band just before guitarist Christopher Reimer tragically dies in his sleep. Forms a new unit pulling in erstwhile band mate Mike Wallace (drums) while adding guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen and names it Viet Cong (rather controversially, no surprise) – it’s to the enormous credit of this Calgary-based band that their sound was at least as well known (thanks to the early airing of “Continental Shelf” back in November, 2014), exhibiting the punchy drive and experimental, darkened under-currents of post-punk with exploratory indie noise to create a sound quite unlike anything heard before. Truly edgy in that one might actually get a tad anxious listening to it, while simultaneously exulting in this very effect, that sound seemed like something we needed and anticipation ran high. There was no reason to worry.

Marshaling their considerable energies and ability, Viet Cong bring a blistering starkness of purpose to the game here, not afraid to blow out the windows along the way, not afraid not to. Refusing to be bound by any strictures – the vocal melody on the otherwise serrated and buzz-sawed “Bunker Buster” could just as easily ride atop a psych track circa ’71 – using the post-punk template as a jumping-off place, the band wander wherever their shadows lead them.

“Newspaper Spoons,” echoing with an urban tribal thunder, unconcerned about its own violence, announces the record with an almost orchestrated brutality, the tone relentless but resigned as tides of electric guitar clash and resolve into a more pastoral fade-out, there’s a lingering calliope sense to it and if you were wondering as to the mood complexities possible with this band you may wonder no more. Immediately after “Pointless Existence” comes drumming along, its syncopation a kind of martial, off-kilter thing, the bass pulsy, the synth/guitar break an exercise in ominous understatement. “Continental Shelf,” meanwhile, has hooks hanging off it all over the place – its spacious almost-pop opening, the ringing toll of twin guitars that damn near chime, the way the chorus pauses in the chaos like coming upon a sudden sun-lit plateau – even as its core is bruising, melodic but bruising. Next song “Silhouettes” sounds like Wire on sulfates, fighting their way out of an industrial American landscape, the pace blistering, the barbed-wire arpeggios slicing through the overcast, the pace and melody on equal footings of relentlessness and immediacy. In the end – oddly, you might think, given the above description – it might well be Viet Cong‘s more jukebox-friendly cut, though granted you may want to sit with your back to the corner in whatever establishment that juke resides.

 

As is often the case, though, with a band of Viet Cong’s chops and pedigree, it’s on the lengthier tracks where we find the truest, most ardent stripes of their collective drive. On both “March of Progress” and deathless closer “Death” (and the already-mentioned “Bunker Buster,” which stabs and jolts and electrifies while letting unfurl an hypnotic, really rather lovely nihilism), deep, more immersive grooves can’t help but develop and something of an agitated trance prevails. The well-named “March..,” aside from being the other track that haunts the fringes of long-lost, recently-rediscovered psych tropes – check the back and forth left channel/right channel guitar trippiness that resembles the sound of violently assaulted harpsichords – wanders through a series of movements like Odysseus with a (small ‘F’) factory soundtrack stuck in his head. At a full five minutes longer than its nearest competitor, however, it’s “Death” where the band truly, umm, come alive.

From its opening Gang of Television Four gambit through its bass-nimble motorik-like early stage, into the lengthy, moody exorcism of a jam that’s all high octane on a low-but-accelerating boil that slows, grows, exceeds itself and carries on, pounding through some death throe magnificence that’s positively Swans-ish, you can’t turn away, it keeps pulling you further in. In a second it resumes, its throttle up and crashing through a tour de force finale that’s Television redux again except now Marquee Moon‘s been produced by a drunken Conny Plank in a studio next door to Can with exquisitely controlled mayhem bleeding through the walls. It’s an outro of breathtaking proportion that’s bound to lead to at least two impressions: one, the landscape has changed, irrevocably and for the better; two, this album and the band that made it deserve every reference made here – Wire Swans TV etc – and likely plenty others left unmentioned for want of time and space. Viet Cong have taken their first step into that league and it’s a fucking bold one.

[order Viet Cong here]

 

october people

Formed in Madrid in 2010, October People – the name derived from Bradbury’s 1955 story collection October Country – specialize in a spacious, cinematic, and generous brand of modern-day post-punk, as much designed, whether by intention or not, for the arena as the smoky dark clubs of Europe. Their sound, with its hopeful drive, synths hanging in regal suspension, its bold (almost exclusively English) vocals evoking something of a sympathetic stridency, carries with it an inherent elegance that makes it easy to imagine the band mounting the stage at Primavera just as dusk sets in, on a bill that would be topped by Sad Lovers and Giants and Simple Minds at their peak, 1982, ’83. Yes, retrogressive without a doubt, but there’s plenty enough power and beauty here to ensure that, once their set began, the yellow- and blue-filtered lights criss-crossing, the dust rising, one would succumb to their spell, and gladly. So, while I wait for Travelocity to confirm my fantasy fare to the European summer festival circuit – got myself in a bit a dream state, I’m afraid – let’s cover some highlights of Love is Colder Than Death, October People’s Fassbinder-borrowing sophomore album, released last November following 2012’s self-titled debut.

 

Endowed with punch and an icy-angled, melodic fury, none of the record’s ten tracks stints, no ballads, no slow-dance love songs dripping with macho saccharine. From the splendidly battering “The Neverending Lie” to “The War Is Over”‘s rumbling, ambered wistfulness – though not strictly political, it nonetheless recalls that war is not all that distant to Spain’s collective memory – to the slicing chime of “Our Darkest Time” that, vocal style aside, could be a lost Skids single recorded just before Stuart Adamson – a not unlikely influence on the guitar playing here – departed for the Big Country, we’re treated to cuts that hew to the addictively listenable (ie. uncringeworthy) end of the anthemic, every song, as was the case on their debut, riding start to finish on a crest of dependability, the flood of tropes as rich as they are reliable. You’ll be hard-pressed – damned, even – to resist them, a particularly handy attribute as it overrides the couple of times – the “no, no, no” refrain (eight in total) in the otherwise inspired “What I Am,” the similar repeater motif in “Our Darkest Time” – when the band’s ambitions trip for a moment over clichéd expediency.

For the most part though, what the People present here on Love is Colder Than Death is striking, often stirring, impeccably produced and I’ll take it. We need bands that bring it like this, their sound unapologetically self-believing enough to be the shards glinting in the darkness, that unexpected warmth in the shivering cold. By the album’s final track, the only one sung in Spanish and called “La Transformación,” I’m ready to join whatever movement, wear whatever armband and raise my fist with a defiant joy in that setting Primavera sun. I can always go back to gritty reality tomorrow.

[Love is Colder Than Death available here]

bad light dist cover

A somewhat shoegazey, post-punk indie band with a deep instinctual lean toward that middle, hyphenated tag, Krakow’s Bad Light District is a band born, according to an interview in 50kmusic a number of years ago, in main man Michal’s head in the mid-aughts when his “parent band” New York Crasnals began the inevitable (and worthy) drift towards the experimental. That imaginary band remained just that through the first album, a completely self-contained effort called Simplifications that escaped its own confines and found enough ears to merit not just another album but a full band to support it. That second record, Nothing Serious, released in 2012, quite naturally expanded BLD’s palette and that creative growth continues apace on the recently issued [December 11th – ed.] Science of Dreams.

Echoing the playful but slightly nightmarish image on its cover, the album inhabits a textural multi-dimensionality, albeit one a bit more pleasantly drawn than a blue fox with one plump, be-sneakered human leg might suggest. Though in terms of mood and subliminal impetus the band’s sound still embraces post-punk’s tell-tale heart – the luring bassline and sonorous chime of “Digital State of Mind,” “El Pato”‘s sparse atmosphere and scraped guitar – on Science of Dreams, whole other multitudes spangle the mix with effortless élan. The wryly-titled beginning track “Don’t Tell Me the Ending” trades niftily in the sharp haze of a shoegaze ballad set to dreampop stun; on “Just Smile and Wave” the soak of psychedelia saturates the pulse beat, enough so that it’s hard not to imagine the liquid flash of a druggy strobe illuminating the walls inside your head; closing track “Spiritual Machines” has an early Radiohead intensity (before the brainy Oxfordians fell to the great maw of esoterica), beautifully eerie, chimerically emotional, proving the god in the machine is actually – and fallibly – human and is all the more redeeming for it. Plus, the drone-out zone-out coda is positively riveting its own somnambulistic way.

 

Primarily, though, Bad Light District’s bread-and-butter is indeed the somewhat haunted stylism of post-punk, not so much angular, perhaps, but certainly enshadowed. “Table Leg,” with its deftly walloping syncopation, the guitars chill-inducing melodicism, and Michal’s trancepop vocals, suggests a mildly funereal Chameleons (and believe me, Burgess would more than proud to own this one), “Niehalo” expounds with a kind of tribal intellectualism of sound that Bow Wow Wow might have discovered had they ever escaped the egotism of their svengali and bothered to grow up, while the ponderous, spell-like murmur of “Yesterday’s Snow” takes the first train over the last bridge between late post-punk and early shoegaze and could easily be the song one’s faulty memory recalls hearing reverberate over the Thames in 1984.

Several times while writing this I’ve had to resist the urge to say “an album highlight” after citing this track or that – not least as regards both “El Pato” and “Digital State of Mind,” which I’m afraid I’ve given too short of shrift given the 1-2 punch they provide mid-album – and really that should be all you need to know about Science of Dreams consistency. Seek it out. Buy it. You can send me a thank you card through the usual channels.

[purchase Science of Dreams here]