Preoccupations has had a bumpy ride. First, they were Women, a Calgary band with two successful albums that disbanded after an on-stage fight and a bandmate's tragic (and unrelated) death. Then, they were Viet Cong, an even more successful project that was forced to hit pause when its politically-charged name sparked protests. When they reemerged in September with a new name and a new album, they still had their teeth — the songs were as droning and dissonant as ever — but there was a palpable optimism rounding things out. There was torment and reprieve, darkness and light.
Their story seems to be reflected, perhaps accidentally, on "Memory," a 12-minute song that bassist and vocalist Matt Flegel calls the centerpiece of the album and the band's deepest cut yet. It's about watching a loved one lose their mental grip ("basically our standard, lighthearted fare," he quips), but will strike a chord with anyone who has felt themselves slipping off the path or been suspicious about whether they can trust their own mind. The first half is romantic and structured, swelling into a climax of drums and guitar. Then the tension evaporates, leaving us with six beautiful minutes of peaceful synths and echoes.
Vancouver director Kevan Funk directed the accompanying music video, which feels like a short film. With high highs and low lows, it's just as fraught with nervous energy and tension as its song and subject.
The film shows the main character drifting into manic episodes marked by furious drumming sessions and then walking himself back from the edge with a cigarette break. A pattern appears: Drum, cigarette. Drum, cigarette. But he eventually breaks and sets himself on fire, before reemerging as an anonymous figure covered in white clay, making his way toward a river. Relief, recovery, rebirth.
Funk's work is typically rooted in politics, and although he tried not to get too topical here, the self-immolation was inspired by the story of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who, after years of harassment by police, lit himself on fire in December 2010, in the middle of traffic. It was an act of protest that some say triggered the Arab Spring.
"I don't mean to sound dark, but there's something poetic about a fire burning inside someone so intensely that one day, it actually physically manifested," Funk tells NPR. "You ask yourself, how much pain can we take? How much control do we have?"
Flegel says it took them two years to finish "Memory" as the song and the band endured several iterations. The final version feels appropriately epic. "It's an even keel followed by mania and depression," he says, characterizing mania as dancing rhythms and depression as drone effects. Dancing, droning. Dancing, droning.
Preoccupations is out now via Jagjaguwar.