It’s perplexing, at first, to classify the type of music played by Canadian rockers Viet Cong. The quartet combines the abrasive instrumentation of industrial rock, the extensive layouts of ambient music, and the minimalism of lo-fi recording. These elements, however, are mixed to varying degrees of success. Viet Cong’s self-titled debut presents an ambitious group of creative rockers intent on melding the unmeldable, but the LP becomes inaccessible with gratuitous repetition, poor vocal delivery, and unusual recording conditions.
Solemn opener “Newspaper Spoons” begins the album with drummer Mike Wallace’s abrasive, militant pounding. Viet Cong initiates listeners into its lo-fi rock cult, relentlessly chanting, “Writhing violence/Essentially without distortion/Quiet, silent/Vanishing into the boredom.” The song does its best to draw listeners into Viet Cong’s industrial production, but with no change in dynamics or tempo, falls short of the grandiose introduction it aspires to be.
Viet Cong aims to create spectacles with the broad layout of ambient music, but that layout thrives on texture-layering, a method completely ignored on Viet Cong. Often, all four band members enter at once, leaving nothing to listeners’ imaginations.
The absence of careful texture construction leaves Viet Cong with an excess of time on its hands, resulting in a chronic overuse of repetition. Garage rock number “Bunker Buster” repeats a minimal, two-note guitar riff for its entire intro, wearing the song thin before vocals even arrive. With only about sixty seconds of actual musical material, the six-minute song spends most of its time rehashing already-simplified riffs.
Repetition hinders most on the hellishly tedious “March of Progress.” Mechanical keyboards cut through the track, droning the same note for nearly three minutes. Bright, celebratory keys arrive toward the end of the track but the party arrives too late; the excitement is long gone.
Like much of the arduous album, “March of Progress” marches towards its own end but finds no prize when it gets there.
When Viet Cong’s ramshackle riffs finally topple, the band falls on singer/bassist Matt Flegel’s apathetic vocals, most of which come slightly distorted. Vocal distortion is not inherently malicious, but when paired with sloppy diction it makes lyrics difficult to distinguish (“Pointless Experience,” “Bunker Buster”).
By the time Viet Cong reaches eleven-minute closer “Death,” vocals have become just another blurry tool for Viet Cong. After four minutes of Flegel’s uninspired mumbling and four more of aimless, instrumental wandering, the band launches into a hurried coda. As Flegel cries his lyrics with increasing frenzy, it becomes apparent that he’s channeling Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic conclusion of “The End.” While Flegel’s vocals are just as frantic as Morrison’s, his execution is much less precise and his ending is nowhere near as impactful.
Performance is paramount, but some of Viet Cong’s shortcomings may also be attributed to bizarre recording conditions. The band recorded its debut in a barn-turned-studio. The unusual space both helps and hinders the final product. Its closeness keeps all four band members tightly bundled and jamming together, but its lack of traditional recording processes makes for low sound quality.
Lo-fi recording isn’t necessarily problematic, but when sound quality decreases, emotional quality must increase. Viet Cong‘s emotional quality can’t increase though, because its stubborn “less is more” attitude inhibits not only sound quality, but also vocal melodies, lyrics, and instrumentation. Without these elements to hold listeners’ ears and minds, the LP limps lifelessly for much of its duration.
Still, the experience of recording an entire album in a barn will strengthen any band’s ability to play as a unit. Viet Cong frequently makes sudden rhythmic changes and though the changes are jarring, they’re also impressive. All four members pivot flawlessly in unison, a tough feat for such awkward, immediate transitions.
Viet Cong’s first full-length may not have made the mark it meant to, but it did introduce the world to a batch of zealous young musicians. Their wayward attitude, the absolute refusal to play by the rules or follow norms, should be encouraged as it is exactly what makes rock music liberating. Think of this LP as a happy mistake, a shaky first step towards the auditory dystopia Viet Cong aims to create. A failed experiment is the most important tool in a rock band’s toolbox because it exposes that band’s strengths and weaknesses, providing a platform from which to start.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong tracklist:
- “Newspaper Spoons”
- “Pointless Experience”
- “March of Progress”
- “Bunker Buster”
- “Continental Shelf”