Viet Cong’s members have openly cited the death of their mutual friend, Women guitarist Christopher Reimer, as a major impetus behind their formation.
The loss of Reimer may have helped shape the fledgling Calgary guitar band’s trajectory (Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace played with him in Women), but their focus is far from life-lusting clichés. Tension, anguish and yearning underlie their opening salvo, Cassette. The mood isn’t a young band’s, “What are we going to do with our lives?” existentialism. Perhaps “Would anyone care if we disappeared today?” is a little closer. They’re dedicated to honestly committing the texture of their nobody-but-ourselves-to-blame existences to tape. Theirs is a fluctuating, day-to-day despair, the sound of flailing thirty-somethings coming to terms with the fact that no one will pay them living wages for simply possessing an intimate understanding of the Factory Records catalog. In the process of capturing this essence, they’ve restoratively injected some scattershot eccentricity back into a lo-fi field that’s becoming increasingly dominated by sharp specializers with narrow visions.
Cassette was seemingly made sans blueprint. It’s the work of a rock-erudite band allowing ideas to spill out of their heads during cathartic basement studio sessions. UK post-punk’s crystalline, single-note guitar lines and the frantic chime of Velvets-descended East Coast college rock inform them. Yet the proud haphazardness of their self-recording is of equal import to their aesthetic. Vocals are alternately over and under-mixed at random, and synths are so wheezy, gurgling and buzzy they sound crank-powered. They’ve stacked the deck against themselves in such a way that their successes tend to feel like near triumphs (that Viet Cong once treated the songs reissued here as discards fit for a tour-only tape release just adds to the off-handed authenticity).
While they clearly favor certain forms, they stray from them enough to suggest everything from John Dwyer’s cyber-punk tendencies (the low-tech electro thrash of “Dark Entries”) to the monochromatic narco-pop minimalism of Suicide, the Screamers and The Jesus & Mary Chain (the aptly titled “Structureless Design”). The aqueous psych-sugar of “Static Wall” even evokes both garage-era footnotes the Dovers and contemporary hypnagogic pop.
The bittersweet shambles of strummers “Throw It Away” and “Oxygen Feed” offer instantly likeable highs, but the icily fluid and vulnerable “Unconscious Melody”, reminiscent of a far less precise Josef K, is most revealing. Here, the rhythm section gradually grows looser and more chaotic by the second, while the words are populated with purposefully-flubbed lines (“It’s a tign of the simes”) and jokes that are either funny-sad, or so unfunny they’re mildly tragic (“I get the feeling/I don’t have any sensation/It isn’t much of a feeling”).
Sub in some bourgeoisie class signifiers, and you’d have what could pass for National lyrics. Don’t be deceived, though. “Unconscious Melody” is no maudlin fantasy birthed from a privileged perspective. It’s a snapshot of real-time stumbling from a band devoted to small-timing it their way (at least for now). They come off almost like modern-day John Cassevetes characters; we grow invested in their crusade because of—not despite—their very human penchant for fucking up right in front of us. Unlike the slacker elite of past generations, they won’t be crowned as, or confused for, geniuses. But they’re smart enough to recognize that truth and build from there. Maybe that awareness will save them yet.