Top albums of 2015 Advent Calendar: Day 16
Viet Cong - Viet Cong
I saw Viet Cong supporting Ought at Scala last November, with no prior knowledge of them at all. The performance was strange as singer Matt Flegel's inter-song chatter about slobber on the microphone and other observations went down like a lead balloon amongst the audience, but the songs themselves were raw, powerful and tight - which the crowd certainly appreciated; I know I did. Their album leaked a few days later (a full 2 months before its official release at the start of 2015), and that power that I'd witnessed on stage was more than present on this frenetic album of determined post-punk pieces. For it to still be hanging on in the top 20 more than a year after first hearing it, in this year of incredible releases, says a lot about its replayability. If this had come out in the last few months it probably would have easily cracked my top 10.
Viet Cong is a mere 7 tracks, but you will feel exhausted be the end of it nonetheless, especially since the closing "Death" is an 11-minute slaughter sprint of guitar drone and militaristic percussion mania that jerks back and forth between onrushing punk and jarring, booming break downs. Prior to that we're treated to a set of impeccable, unstoppable blistering post-punk tracks, full of paranoia and tension.
The album announces itself with the distorted drums of "Newspaper Spoons," which is quickly joined by whining and squealing guitar feedback, before eventually disseminating into a beautifully simple keyboard line. During this Flegel is chanting about "difficult existence" and "underestimated alienation." This sets the scene for Viet Cong, and the following songs have a similarly rambunctious quality to them, the band sounding like they're on a one-way escape mission from a prison camp out through a warzone. Throughout there are loud guitars, unpredictable spins in new directions, crashing omniscient percussion and the fraught, panicked words of Flegel.
Despite all these chaotic elements going on at once, Viet Cong's tightness is never in doubt, and out of the melee they produce some ruthlessly efficient hooks and melodies. Through the frenetic clamour of "Pointless Experience" the underlying guitar and bass melodies carry through and you'll end up singing sweetly to a chorus of "desperately debilitated / if we're lucky we'll get old and diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie." "Continental Shelf" was an immediate hit when it was released in late 2014 because of the way the band successfully married their penchant for obfuscatory musicianship with a fairly danceable lock-step groove. "March of Progress" maintains a dogged march through the cascading drums and keyboards, while Flegel sings robotically, then the song then flips inside out and it's full-steam-ahead jangling guitars grating against each other as Flegel begs "tell me tell me tell me / what is the difference between love and hate?" and in that moment you feel as helplessly drained as he seems to be.
There are only 7 tracks on this album, but the number of adrenaline-inducing moments of sheer post-punk prowess are uncountable. Flegel sounds like every single strained word is of vital importance, and his band back him up every inch. The sound is frenetic, passionate and freeing. It's a shame that they're being conscientiously made to change their band name, because Viet Cong is kind of perfect; destructive, fearless, ruthless, meticulous and completely unpredictable.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, I love this band; I've said several times since I've heard it that if I were ever in a band this is the kind of music I'd like to make.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a band that traveled a similar kind of trajectory to that of Tame Impala. On the debut they (really, he: Ruban Nielson) displayed exciting guitar technique, both in playing and production, and cajoled that talent into some scrappy stoner/garage/pop hybrids. II pushed this even further, but also sawed off a lot of the rough edges, and beneath that were a few memorable pop hits. The durability of songs like "So Good At Being In Trouble" indicated the direction in which Nielson would take UMO on their third album, Multi-Love.
From the opening notes of the title track, which kicks off the album, it already has a different feel; the instrument is not a guitar but a synthesizer. The melody is a luminous purple, catapulted by a bombastic drumbeat we're launched into a seedy world of sex and jealousy. Yes, the story behind this album and this track in particular really adds to the experience, and I highly recommend you read about it on Pitchfork.
Amidst Nielson's admissions of longing, jealousy and paranoia, he's plunked a set of futuristic,lambent funk-pop songs. "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" was something of a sleeper hit, with a message of downright frustration that's so infuriating that it forces you to dance along to its dancehall flavoured rhythms and guitar lines. I saw someone say recently that they could imagine it in a Tarantino film, and I could certainly see that - it would have to be over a bloody shootout. "The World Is Crowded" takes his stoner funk hybrid to the border of jazz, getting his dad to play a coiling sax part to bolster a pristine earworm of a hook. Nielson shows his more low-key side with the understated "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty," where he laments the world's imbalance over a quietly seething guitar, and "Necessary Evil" where gently philosophises on his complicated love life. Fans of Nielson's guitar explosives will be happy to hear the closing track "Puzzles," where his guitar cuts a jagged melody in the spirit of his infuriated statement: "I don't want to solve your puzzles anymore."
Once again the thing that keeps me coming back to all three of UMO's albums is the production. The detail that Nielson puts into the melodic interplay, guitar tones, drum sounds and vocal modulations has only grown more precise and purposeful as he's become more experienced. It gives his already vibrant melodies a whole unique quality. It's something that excites me to see where he can take it with each release.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, I pre-ordered it from Rough Trade so that I could go to their instore (which was awesome), but I was supposed to get it on pink wax yet I got plain old black (obviously didn't check it until I got it home and out of the cellophane). :(