Album Review: Preoccupations – Arrangements

[Self-released; 2022]

With their new LP, Arrangements, Alberta-based Preoccupations seem to be wearing their ennui more loosely, moving from a contracted position to a more expulsive orientation. While the tracks still emanate a modish world-weariness and anhedonic quality, they point to a band encountering and expressing their anxieties more head-on. The result is an engaging and frequently entrancing set.

“Fix Bayonets!” launches with distorted guitar blasts and militaristic drum rolls. Singer Matt Flegel traverses a riptide of lyrics, tapping into the well of protest punk while never ambling too far from a palpable ambivalence. “Ricochet” is built around a crunchy yet melodic guitar part that brings to mind The Cult’s Billy Duffy circa the glammy Sonic Temple. Lyrics are plucked from the preapocalyptic handbook (“The days are getting longer and drier and hotter”). The chorus’s hook is transportive, even uplifting, despite the minor-key soundscape and bleak lyric (“Ricochet and decay”), the band evoking the precariousness of contemporary life while reveling in catharsis.

“Death of Melody” contrasts Flegel’s droll yet somber voice – a cross between Bowie, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, and Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten – with a shoegazey swirl of distorted guitars and muffled drums. The result is a synthesis of the band’s early penchant for noisescapes (2013’s Cassette and 2015’s debut LP, both released under the Viet Cong moniker) and their more recent emphasis on conventional songcraft and layered composition (2016’s Preoccupations and 2018’s New Material). The track illustrates that what distinguishes Preoccupations from many of their postpunk peers is not so much a distinct take on the usual sources – Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, et al – but a more subtle and career-long affinity with such bands as Sonic Youth, Swans, and Sunn O))). That is, Preoccupations’ brand of postpunk is denser, grittier, and more panoramic than the versions produced by many of their contemporaries.

“Slowly” launches with a catchy guitar riff, distortion spattered across the spacey verses. “And you’re waiting for the day / but the day waits for no one,” Flegel sings, addressing the way in which fate and choice are interwoven, with fate; i.e., inevitable death, having the final say. The seven-minute “Advisor” opens with an ambient sprawl, teetering between euphony and cacophony, the roughly two-minute intro an effective precursor to the later eruption of compressed and garagey guitars. The track balances containment and dissolution, stasis and mercuriality, also including a sprinkle of synth parts (Arrangements displays a decided return to a guitar-led MO), and the result is some of the more dynamic instrumentation in Preoccupations’ oeuvre. “You have no strength to operate / while under the shadow of morality,” Flegel moans, critiquing the systemic and intergenerational nature of oppression.

The album’s closing tracks – “Recalibrate” and “Tearing Up the Grass” – reiterate the band’s proficiency re: volume dynamics, as well as Flegel’s oscillations between a laconic and more effusive performance. The former features Flegel leaning toward the punk-operatic, voice draped atop a mix of staccato and serrated instrumentation. The latter opens with a relatively melodic soundscape that hints at Flegel’s and Mike Wallace’s work with the short-lived Women (2008-2011), segueing into a concussive rhythm offset by a supple bass part, Flegel occurring as varyingly truculent and funereal.

With Arrangements, Preoccupations forge a broad and integrated sonic matrix. Flegel continues to expand his emotional range, reconciling swagger and restraint, vulnerability and aloofness, pointedness and obliquity. Arrangements shows the band as a whole accessing a new sense of purpose and creative liberation, planting another flag in the crowded postpunk landscape.