THE NEW Preoccupations record is disturbingly clean. After their billy club of a full-length in 2015, it seems as though the band have grown weary. In place of all the previous thunder and clanging, there’s now just a growing sense of unease and bitterness. Though the overdriven, primal tom thuds and the screeching 12-string warfare are no more, Preoccupations have developed an interest in the prettier side of post-punk. This time around, frontman Matt Flegel even indulges in a few pop melodies instead of his usual droning death incantations. Regardless of these aesthetic choices, the question still remains: is it successful?
For the most part, yes. Despite this shift to a more accessible sound (as accessible as one could get with 11-minute tracks that shift from mathy syncopation to shuddering ambient pads), “Preoccupations” has not lost any of the raw emotion that made their previous works great. On the slow -burning opening track “Anxiety,” Flegel spits with venom, “I’m spinning in a vacuum / Deteriorating to great acclaim / Help has fallen by the wayside / Nowhere near to finding better ways to be.”
The band’s new minimalist aesthetic in sound and image feels like a sterile, suffocating entity, and it forces the lyrical cries for help into an extremely stark light. This record can be a nauseating listen at times. The blunt repetitions of percussion and woozy synths create an unstable ground for the listener, and Flegel’s nihilistic musings certainly don’t help matters. However, it’s certainly just in time for the weather to go from sun to shit and everyone to start wearing black again.
Sister songs “Monotony” and “Zodiac” feed into one another, like one fever dream into the next. The former finds the band drearily muttering, “The persistence of monotony is blowing out the sun.” The image of the sun being extinguished suggests the fragility of positivity, as if happiness were simply a candle flickering. “Zodiac” ups the intensity a hair, with its subtle lo-fi percussion driving the verses while a pulsing krautrock synth induces a trancelike vibe. “Degraded” is solid but nothing special after the mammoth “Memory.” “Sense” and “Forbidden” tease with ominous ideation, but ultimately leave the listener hanging, the latter track literally fading out as the song begins to kick into gear. “Fever” seems to be the emotional thesis of the album, making for a fine closing track, but the true standout is the penultimate offering, “Stimulation.”
As the name suggests, “Stimulation” is successful because the band seems to remember what made rocking out worthwhile in the first place. After the album’s bleakest lyrics are delivered (“All dumb inside / All dead inside / All gonna die”), Preoccupations return to the ambition that made their first record huge. Truly bombastic arena-ready guitars line up ecstatically with Mike Wallace’s percussive bashing, proving the band still knows how to have fun and get away with it.
Though much of this album is wading through the muck and the malaise, the moments where the band triumphs over it all redeems it. The beautiful production, the ambitious compositions, and the impassioned lyricism outweigh the few moments where both the listener and Preoccupations feel ready to give up. For all the dread and despair this band is plagued with, they still seem to be creative enough to fend it off, for now.