It takes less than sixty seconds of album opener "Newspaper Spoons" for you to decide that Viet Cong is a winter record. The album has barely begun, and the guitar doesn't snarl until the end of that opening minute, but it still presents a palpable iciness in just a few short moments. It's bitter. It stings. But once you're in it, and you're bracing yourself and charging ahead, "Newspaper Spoons" moves from a punishing, almost militarized drumbeat to a melody that's still menacing but also delicate, almost celestial.
That instinct for humanizing a stone-cold song is Viet Cong's greatest gift and sharpest weapon. It's harsh, but exhilarating. Themes of deconstruction and disintegration, of hardening and crumbling seem to come from every direction. But time and again, they are rescued by something -- a little bit of humour, a cathartic moment, even a basic human goof. In fact, as the members of Viet Cong worked through the songs that make up this record, they erred on the side of keeping those moments that save Viet Cong from being overly mechanized. "There have to be strange little goofups and stuff that’s sometimes intentional, sometimes not," bassist and lead singer Matt Flegel explains. "I have a bleak sense of humor, too, so some lyrics might seem funny to me even though anyone else might think they're desperately hopeless."
Recorded in a barn-turned-studio in rural Ontario, the seven songs that make up the album were born largely on the road, when Flegel and band mates Mike Wallace, Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen embarked on a 50-date tour that stretched virtually every limit imaginable. Close quarters hastened their exhaustion but also honed them as a group. With all four members traveling in one car, the mood conflated with the soundtrack, the soundtrack with the cities around them, and so forth. There was repetition, but it was all different. This —combined with the grey, chilly emptiness of Calgary— rendered a record with a viscerally rugged vibe, one that Flegel even describes as "shit earth."
As the album pushes forward, the six-minute "March of Progress" is when it begins to really take flight. A lengthy, almost industrial march chugs along for a full three minutes before the floor gives out underneath it and gives way to a spare little riff and the album's first real melody. "That's the one where I thought 'that's what I want us to be doing. Finally,'" explains Flegel. "That was the sound that I had heard in my mind before we even got started." Later still, that negative space gives way to a richer melody, and it's here that Flegel sings "we build the buildings and they're built to break," a declaration that is in many ways this album's thesis.
The repetition throughout Viet Cong hypnotizes but it also softens, leaving a space that is deceptively personal. "Continental Shelf" orbits a thousand-watt hook with a thick crackle and a battering-ram drum line. It's so arresting that you barely notice it doesn't have a chorus, and then in comes a line like "if we're lucky we'll get old and die" and you can't believe Leonard Cohen (or Trent Reznor, or Nick Cave, or Sinatra) didn't get to it first. "Silhouettes" is a tripwire of a song, opening with an almost Joy Division-esque exposition and moving at breakneck speed -- frantic and pitch-black at a thousand miles an hour -- until before you know it they are howling. Actually howling, and maybe you are too.
You can designate records as seasonal, and you can feel Viet Cong's bleakness and declare it wintry. But the only way you get a frost is when there's something warmer to freeze up. So yes, Viet Cong is a winter album, but only until it is a spring record, then a summer scorcher, then an autumn burner, then it ices over again. They build these buildings, and they're built to break.