Album Review: Viet Cong—“Viet Cong”

By James Li

If you are familiar with post-punk music, you know that dread is one of the essential components of the genre. Sometimes the dread is political, including lyrics that paint bleak images of guerrilla warfare, cruise missiles, or nuclear winter. At other times, introspective dread is ripped from the pages of Camus, Kerouac, or Ballard. When you listen to Viet Cong’s self-titled debut album, you might expect something militaristic — one of the songs on the album is even titled “Bunker Buster”. But Viet Cong are not afraid of war — they are afraid of their mortality.

Death is the prevailing theme on Viet Cong’s album, and that is no coincidence. The band was formed by Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace, the former bassist and drummer for the Calgary band Women. The last days of Women were tragic, ending in a fistfight that broke up the band and the death of guitarist Chris Reimer not long after. Reimer’s death was a wake-up call for the members of Viet Cong, who found a new resolve to do something new. After a few years of touring and a tour-only cassette, Viet Cong have an impressive debut to show for it.

Album art for Viet Cong

Album art for Viet Cong

Like a lot of post-punk albums, Viet Cong is gloom and doom. The album, which was recorded in a barn in rural Ontario, has a gritty lo-fi quality to it, but the production is spacious enough to feel cavernous. While your generic indie band is happy to rip off Joy Division’s bass lines and Gang of Four’s riffs, Viet Cong draw influences from the more experimental side of post-punk. Tracks like “Newspaper Spoons” and “March of Progress” layer martial drumming, scraping feedback, and chanted vocals on top of each other. Classic post-punk bands like The Pop Group, Pere Ubu, and This Heat come to mind, but the addition of psychedelic jangle, shimmering synths, and math rock build-ups make Viet Cong sound thoroughly modern.

One of post-punk’s greatest inspirations has always been the bleakness of the city — the concrete landscapes of Manhattan or Manchester, for example. Viet Cong is a little different in that it is inspired by Calgary’s winters. As any Canadian knows, winter can make you miserable, and that comes through on Viet Cong. “What is the difference between love and hate?” Flegel ponders on “March of Progress”. On “Pointless Experience”, he muses that, “if we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die.” But the album’s closing number, which relentlessly builds up over eleven minutes and does not let go for a single one, speaks the most. The song is simply titled “Death”, and, considering the path to Viet Cong’s first album, you can see why mortality weighs so heavily on the band.

With all that said, Viet Cong is not perfect. It might be unfair to compare the two, but Women had a more distinct sound, whereas Viet Cong lean on their influences more. It is also fairly bottom-loaded, with all of the best songs coming at the end of the album. Still, that does not take away from what Viet Cong accomplishes on their debut. We have seen a recent wave of post-punk bands, like Savages, Ought, Iceage, and Protomartyr, playing the style with more vigour than before. But do any of them capture the miserable grind of a Canadian winter on record like this? (Jagjaguwar)

Listen: “Continental Shelf”

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