Viet Cong’s excellent self-titled album opens with thundering, tribal, massively accented drums. As the anticipation builds, lead vocalist Matt Flegel opens with a gunshot: “Writhing violence, essentially without distortion / wired silent, vanishing into the boredom / deliberately made to disintegrate, difficult existence under a civilian nation”: This is the language of post-punk.
Post-punk was born in the late ‘70s and is used to describe bands whose sound consisted of, as noted by Jon Savage, "harsh urban scrapings/controlled white noise/massively accented drumming.” Listen to that opening salvo of Viet Cong again (hear “Newspaper Spoons” below) and you will find it completely matches Savage’s description.
Post-punk came to full fruition in the early ‘80s with the work of bands such as Joy Division, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Teardrop Explodes and Talking Heads along with the support of upstart (and now renowned) labels such as Factory, 4AD and Rough Trade. (If you want more on post-punk’s golden age, Simon Reynolds triumphantly catalogued it in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984.) The genre ultimately ceded the space to heavy metal hairbands, grunge and eventually ‘90s alt rock. However, in the last decade, post-punk has once again sprouted up in the music culture zeitgeist (a phenomenon that may never end as hypothesized by Reynolds in another one of his books, Retromania), and Viet Cong, along with post-punk revivalists Savages, may be the culmination of that triumphant return.
While Viet Cong impress on wax with their full-length debut, it is their live show that provides them with their underground accolades. In his write-up of their January 28 show at New York’s Union Pool, renowned live music archivist acidjack of NYCTaper states: “What makes the band’s live show flat-out better than their very-well-regarded debut LP is simply that watching them put this music together gives you a clearer sense of how much is going on. The interplay between guitarists isn’t simply your usual rhythm/lead dichotomy; guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen’s instruments are almost in opposition to each other at points, at others answering each other note-for-note”.
Stream the show for yourself below and you’ll hear exactly what acidjack is referring to: It’s dark and overpowering but accessible, enabling you to get lost in the best way possible. “March of Progress” goes for a full three minutes before Flegel begins with: “Lately there’s a wound that needs some healing soon.” “Unconscious Melody” does its best impression of early Talking Heads, and the sprawling closer “Death” culminates only after 14 minutes of homicide by angry drums and angsty guitars. As acidjack also notes, “Ultimately, though, what comes across most about this band is just how effing good they are.”
I may have missed out on the first wave of post-punk, only discovering many of the notable bands of that era in my mid-20s. But listening to Viet Cong’s NYC show, even on laptop speakers, gives me comfort because it sounds as if the second coming may be here.
Portlanders get to see for ourselves on Tuesday, March 3 at Mississippi Studios when Viet Cong is joined by Freak Heat Waves and Aan for a night of the future (and present) of post-punk. My only fear is that the night might set such a high bar for the rest of 2015 that it will be hard to be as impressed by anything else.