By: Scott Alic
On a quiet, dark stretch of College St, blocks west of World Cup revellers celebrating Columbian and Uruguayan victories on the Little Italy strip, sits the Smiling Buddha; an unassuming, deep and somewhat skinny space that defies you to find its bathroom. I was a little surprised that it was still open (after awkward memories of being the only patron for a show there, years ago), let alone a venue for NXNE, let alone hosting the show that, to some, was the most highly anticipated of the entire North By slate: the first Toronto appearance of Calgary band Viet Cong. The room filled steadily as Queens-via-Uruguay antifolk troubadour Wauters channeled a Nu Yorican Jonathan Richman with his high-velocity set, and there was a palpable sense that we were in the right place for the midnight slot on Thursday.
Why such buzz on a band with only a 6-track tour-only cassette to its name? Currently, no article about the band (this one included) is quite able to avoid mention of Women, the Calgary avant-rock band which put out just two highly-regarded LPs and a small number of 7” tracks before breaking up after a tense gig in Victoria in October 2010. Volatility seemed a key element of the chemical formula of the band’s music, where squalling art-punk dissonance, ambient drones and pop prettiness defied the odds to manage a delicate entente. While many pointed out debts to Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, the band forged a unique, invigorating sound that pointed to exciting new directions in music, and continues to garner new fans with each year. The untimely passing of the band’s talented guitarist Christopher Reimer of a cardiac arrhythmia in February 2012 put an end to the hopes of this growing cult fanbase that the band might reconcile.
We followed the remaining band members in other endeavours, including backing up Chad van Gaalen (who produced Women’s albums) on his stellar Diaper Island LP and tours through town; guitarist Patrick Flegel, whose wiry guitar work and unnerving edginess provided Women the perfect counterpart to Reimer’s sumptuous and meditative drones, has made some sporadically exciting music in projects Fels-Naphtha, Androgynous Mind and Cindy Lee. But it is Viet Cong, featuring Women members Matt Flegel (vocals, bass; Patrick’s brother) and Michael Wallace (drums) that had the Smiling Buddha crowd excited and hopeful to witness a band hungry to prove itself worthy of the surprising amount of buzz it had generated for itself in a short time, and blowing the “ex-Women” albatross from its neck.
No idea whose idea it was to have a stand-up “comic” come onstage to do about 90 seconds of sexist jokes that were audibly rejected by the crowd – the only such intro in the twenty or so shows I saw at NXNE. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only bitter taste experienced over the next half-hour.
Having spent some time with the Viet Cong cassette in recent weeks, I can tell you that this project takes the righteous post-punk low-end of Women, and brings new sounds to the mix, namely 80s new wave and touches of goth and psych. (The “Cassette” LP is scheduled to be released in early July on van Gaalen’s Flemish Eye imprint and Mexican Summer; a full-length has been recorded (in a barn in rural Ontario, by Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh) and is promised for mid-autumn.) Although the band claim the cassette tracks were put to tape in a “ramshackle” form and released against their better judgement by Mexican Summer, there’s still much to like there – there’s a new vigor and sense of direction to the tracks that was less prevalent in Women’s oeuvre, as well as stronger pop elements – there are still the angular breakdowns and noisy passages, but this is a different band, to be sure.
The set began with “Bunker Buster” (a non-cassette track, the rough mix of which was posted on Soundcloud earlier this year) with Flegel and guitarist Scott Munro (Lab Coast; Daniel Christiansen from Sharp Ends is the band’s second guitarist) thrillingly swapping notes on the opening riff between them, a tight piece of showmanship that felt unshow-y yet pointed, an announcement of a sort. Munro and Flegel shared vocals as the song built up over its five-minute length – in a Women-style monotone at first, but expanding in range later on. Viet Cong is still not so much of a verse-chorus-verse band, the songs treading determinedly into varied sonic fields and dynamics. The song peaked in a lock-groove crescendo which dropped suddenly and assuredly back into a final verse. “Unconscious Melody”, a highlight of the cassette (and one of two tracks which remain on the band’s Bandcamp page), is a long-lost new-wave gem, with vocals that actually hit a falsetto range (although Flegel’s voice rasped to hit those notes here), pointing to an expanded emotional palette. It was a one-two combo that had the enrapt crowd roaring in approval.
Then came the moshing.
I really have little interest in playing the “in my day…” Old Man Moshpit card here, but my attention during the set quickly turned to the crowd activity around me. After a good decade-plus of pit-free shows in the 00s, there’s been a noticeable increase in the sight of 90s babies, wanting to claim a piece of that era’s culture for themselves, have started to get their buddies up at shows more and more. Granted, I couldn’t blame a young moppet for wanting into the pit at a Ty Segall show. Buzz-band or not, though, Viet Cong was not really delivering sounds to crowd-surf by – loud, yes, but neither aggressive nor ebullient. Things started out innocuously enough, with two inebriated and burly bros losing their equilibrium in an approximation of “dancing”, but settling down when the time-changes got a bit tricky. Fine. As they began to realize that their activity was starting to resemble slam dancing, they began to own it, and friends egged them on with nudges that grew in force, which put them into repeated contact with a younger dude (who, my friend pointed out, resembled Walt Jr. from Breaking Bad), who seemed simply to be out for a nice night of angular art-rock with the missus. Let it be said that he was taking the increasing frequency of the bumps visibly poorly, which summoned the appearance of a diminutive Hipster Troll (plaid shirt, backpack, ball cap) who, although quite drunk, proved quite adept at capitalizing on any opportunity to launch himself or anyone else at hapless Walt Jr., whose boiling blood seemed to a noticeable increase in the temperature of the room. Then he started pushing back.
This increasingly ugly scene was soundtracked by some guys that were onstage at the time, playing their instruments. That’s the extent to which my attention was pulled from the show, for the sake of personal and public safety. I’d say that the music contained elements of menace and dissonance that suited the scene – a bit like the sequence in Apocalypse Now where the acid rock band plays on as the USO show devolves into a hellish scene from a Bosch triptych, and the damned cling to the helicopters airlifting the Playboy bunnies to safety.
Actually, I definitely recall that the band played “Throw it Away,” another highlight from the cassette, which actually could potentially be a pit pleaser, and I guess it was. I was pretty busy with my arms up, buffering the blows of projectile-people, thinking back to my own pit tenure, and concluding that although I was young and dumb once too, I couldn’t recall moshing with the mean-spiritedness and nihilism on display here. Finally, enter a nu-yuppie couple, straight out of a car-commercial — him: all slicked hair, trimmed jean shorts, Tom’s Shoes – “Ooh honey, look – a moshing pit! Let’s join in!” I stood on the edge of the pit, contemplating violence. My friend told me that Walt Jr.’s girlfriend finally lost it and pushed Hipster Troll, who actually gave her a full-on shove back. I’m very glad I didn’t witness that.
The band played through all this, with minimal stage banter or pleas for sanity. It wasn’t quite a riot – too small of a venue to warrant security, this skirmish was probably pretty minor seen from even a moderate distance. But it was less of a testament to Viet Cong’s ability to rock a crowd than to the dangerous power that a stupid prick can wield on said crowd.
It wasn’t a life-changing show, although it did give me a lot to ponder (clearly). After seeking out the Troll and level-headedly pointing out his trollishness, I crafted this run-on sentence in my head in the lengthy exodus from the sweltering club: “Viet Cong emerged triumphantly from the shadow of its former band, retaining elements of its past but pressing forward in exciting new directions, and possibly expanding on its fan-base in the process – perhaps akin to catching an early New Order show 18 months after Ian Curtis’ death, as clubbier, more crowd-pleasing elements made their way into the band’s sound”. Hyperbolic, to be sure, but only a little, and considering the immense love engendered by their precursor band, that’s saying something.
This is actually not correct, as the band played the Izakaya Sushi House (!) in October, so let’s say “first TO gig at a non-sashimi-related venue”
I never managed to see Women live, to my discredit, but the Youtube clips I’ve seen point to a band less interested in visual kinetics, with Patrick Flegel looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else, often keeping his back to the audience.
It’s what Kurt would have wanted, after all. If you think of it, is it all that different to 70s babies immersing themselves in Zeppelin and the Doors, 20 years after the death / dissolution / legend-building?