The Agit Reader

Underground Arts, Philadelphia, April 23

May 2nd, 2018  |  by Brian O'Neill

Preoccupations live

Openers Freak Heat Waves are the aural equivalent to Xanax. Drummer Thomas Di Ninno played along to prerecorded drums as part of the sampled synths and other electronic noises while James Twiddy’s bass was super-high and super-clear in the mix. This gave the band a claustrophobic feel, as if the sound pulsing from the PA was piped in from the floor of an ocean or maybe from another planet.

Steven Lind exacerbated the hypnotic drone with his deep voice laden with overpowering reverb. At times, his dour monotone resembled the disembodied voice pumped into subway stations, lacking much clarity and seemingly disinterested in whether or not he could be understood. It’s not his problem your train isn’t running; you’ll figure it out when you get sick of waiting for it to show up.

Lind and the band aren’t without subterranean charm, but you still can’t help but think that if Ian Curtis could see this, the man who famously killed himself would probably tell them to lighten up.

Preoccupations (pictured above) aren’t exactly a sunny day at the park either. The group takes brooding to new depths when they dial it down, which is frequent on their latest New Material. It would be great if it got that title because that was on the tapes they sent their label Jagjaguwar, but it’s apt anyway because without making any seismic changes to their formula, it still sounds considerably darker than past efforts.

It also features far more studio experimentation than the band’s previous releases, which presented challenges with how to accurately recreate them live. As a result both Scott “Monty” Munro and
Daniel Christiansen alternated between guitars and synths and added far more background vocals than on past tours. To the band’s credit it didn’t seem that there were many triggered and prerecorded sounds–maybe not any–though given the viscous density of most of the setlist, it wasn’t the easiest thing to ascertain.

The new material highlighted the band’s uncanny ability to make depression accessible. On “Disarray,” Matt Flegel stoically intoned, “It’s easy to see why everything you’ve ever been told is a lie,” as the band approximated Echo and the Bunnymen. “Solace” is lounge doom punctuated with crisply chimed guitars, while on “Decompose,” which was recorded without live guitars, Christiansen made his synth sound like redundantly plucked harp strings and Flegel plucked heart strings as he conceded, “For better or worse we are cursed.”

“Espionage,” the first single off the album, was played in the middle of the set, but it appropriately kicks off the disc as it’s a perfect transition from the band’s older material. Tons of bands kick out layered Joy Division moodiness, but few post-punkers-come-lately not named Interpol have resplendent pop hooks mushroom from the murk. And even they don’t have Mike Wallace, who apes Stephen Morris’ mechanized technique, driving the song as he flailed away, a blur of blonde air and sweat glistening on his shirtless chest.

The set,list appeared haphazardly assembled (it was literally scribbled on a paper plate) but it was expertly concocted. When you are as prolific as the Preoccupations have proven to be to date—an album every year and a half with healthy touring in between—you know your strengths well. The trio of tracks from 2016’s self-titled album was highlighted by the daunting, sprawling “Memory” and the drone-pop of “Anxiety.” The entire second half of the debut (when they were still unfortunately named Viet Cong) might be the best side you’re likely to hear and they played all of it, including the dirgy march of “Continental Shelf” offset by the relentless and seething “Silhouettes.”

The set ended with two more tracks from Viet Cong: the bouncing “Bunker Buster” and finally “Death.” It shouldn’t be a shock since the band has been closing sets with the 12-minute opus for some time now, but the way each passage seemed to touch upon the stages of grief and how the band is now incorporating the Eno-dub of “Compliance” off New Material in the middle of the song is chilling.

The four members of Preoccupations didn’t play to the crowd very much. Flegel did some amiable Canadian interaction that seemed more out of obligation; he and his mates had as much enthusiastic stage presence as you could expect since everyone was locked into their space. Ultimately, it felt like they were doing it solely for their own benefit; the catharsis of the music was more than enough to fulfill them. This detachment wasn’t off-putting; you didn’t feel like an intruder as much a witness to a willing voyeur. It’s just another facet that makes Preoccupations unique, among many more.

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