Preoccupations’ energy in DC9 on the night of Wednesday, November 17th masked the chronic morbidity of their lyrics. The group delivered messages of doom amidst surprisingly danceable rhythms and vibrationally responsive lighting. From Calgary, Alberta, this Canadian post-punk band is composed of four experienced artists: Matt Flegel on bass and vocals, Mike Wallace on drums, Scott “Monty” Munro on guitar and synth, and Daniel Christiansen on guitar. After a couple of jokes and short conversations with attendees, Preoccupations came out guns a-blazing with “Fix Bayonets!” the inaugural track of their latest album Arrangements. As the song started to build, a dynamic riff alongside powerful drums sent a pulse of energy into the crowd of DC9’s Wednesday night denizens.
Flegel’s abrasive, gritty vocals added a dimension of grunge to Preoccupations’ shoegaze sound, bringing a valuable edginess to the performance that made it so distinctly post-punk. However, if you were looking to enjoy the thoughtful, nihilistic lyricism of this new album, you might be a bit disappointed. Arrangements works hard to satirically appreciate the end of the world through lines such as “It’s alright, we can celebrate the evaporating Homo sapien race/That’s racing to erase its brief and glorious existence” on “Fix Bayonets!” Maybe it was the inevitable audio blur that comes with a live performance or the demands of a rugged punk sound on stage, but the clever lyrics certainly got lost in the mix. To truly lose yourself in Flegel’s storytelling, the studio album might provide a more satisfying listening experience.
Nevertheless, both the vocals and instrumentals created an atmosphere worth experiencing live. The performance on the synth by Scott “Monty” Munro played a beautiful homage to post-punk predecessors from the eighties, bringing a funky psychedelia to the stage with complementary lighting and a disco ball that brightened up the group’s sound. As Munro’s synth blended with the distant sounds of Christiansen’s guitar, the duo created a delicate element that contrasted and complemented their intense punk tenacity.
After finishing their new releases, Flegel lets the crowd know they’re going to “keep doin’ a couple more tunes,” before they throw the crowd back into earlier days with songs from their previous albums. Fans seemed comforted by familiar favorites. “Continental Shelf” energized the crowd with catchy riffs by “Monty” Munro and Christiansen and a strong beat driven by Wallace, whose passion behind the drum set provided a reliable rhythmic structure for his counterparts.
This sense of comfort and camaraderie between the group and the Wednesday night attendees persisted throughout the entire show. The performance felt personal, as if the band fostered solidarity with the audience through a common nostalgia for days gone by and a shared trepidation for days yet to come.
They wrapped up the night with “March of Progress” off their 2016 self-titled album. Preoccupations’ older albums maintain a distinct new-wave feel, inspired by early pioneers like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, yet are still reminiscent of today’s angst-filled alternative rock – think Current Joys or Psychedelic Furs. However, on this new release, full of the brassy sounds and caustic vocals of later nineties garage rock, it seems, with time, the band’s sound has aged just as post-punk itself did. It is clear that this performance of one of their oldies was undoubtedly influenced by their newer grunge sound.
“March of Progress” began with a long instrumental introduction. As their set came to a close and the stage lights warmed to an orange glow, Preoccupations took a breath and slowed down. They began to mix every genre and sound they had been toying with all night. Wallace led with a hard beat on the toms, accompanied by long drawn-out notes on the synth. Breaking with the post-punk mold, simple yet intense reverbs bled into Flegel’s similarly echoing vocals. The quartet guided DC9 into a moody and ethereal atmosphere, relaying feelings of gliding toward the sun before the heavy drums were replaced by Preoccupations’ dissonant, angular guitar.
It may be easy to critique Preoccupations’ unrelenting cynicism, but in some ways, their honest acknowledgment of human-created disasters is refreshing. As the group notes in “Ricochet,” these days are “an odyssey of absurdity.” While Preoccupations’ absolute renunciation of hope may not be the perfect prescription, there is a lesson to be gleaned. There are times when there is nothing else to do except throw our heads back in the light of a DC9 disco ball and let our own existentialism take over. In a time where we dance around solutions, it’s exhilarating to intimately dance with the reality of our own man-made disasters. Maybe the District needs a new outlet for our hope and fear. Maybe it needs Preoccupations.