Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Viet Cong’s Estrangement From Women

Formerly the band Women, Viet Cong's impressive momentum has Douglas Martin smiling like a proud dad watching his only son who made it.
By    January 28, 2015


Douglas Martin is half man, half distortion pedal

In a way that’s more spiritual than stylistic, Viet Cong is the New Order to Women’s Joy Division. Both the former bands are the product of tragedies befalling their previous incarnations. They’re both different enough to avoid band sequel comparisons, but similar enough to where it doesn’t feel trite to use their history as context. (Though since this is the second release under the Viet Cong name, so don’t get too comfortable with those ex-Women descriptors.) I wouldn’t say New Order or Viet Cong are necessarily brighter than their predecessors, or at least not by very much. They’re different routes to the same point.

Women was a band frequently described as frigid, insular, kind of standoffish. You know that one brilliant friend you have who other friends tell you are impossible to get along with, but you can’t really get enough of them?  They assuredly felt that way to me. One of those groups who simultaneously held you at arm’s length and used your own curiosity to draw you in closer. They used textures which alternately felt like snowstorms and standing by the furnace in your basement for way too long. A meeting point between the vast terrains of the Velvet Underground, secondary Nuggets comps, krautrock never expanding past Germany’s borders, and avant guitar noise. (If this is not your first time reading this column, you are well aware this is enough to make your band one of my favorites.)

As brilliant a band as Women were, as promising as their future seemed when Public Strain (if you’re keeping score, still my favorite record of this decade so far), all it takes is an onstage fist fight and a 26-year-old guitarist dying in his sleep for a band’s fortunes to change course. The destination figuratively ended up being Vietnam.


Speciously not too avoidant of where they came from, Viet Cong does favorably resemble Women in parts. “Bunker Buster,” with its shifting time signatures and sidelong thrust from post-punky blasts to darker, contemplative territory and all the way back again is Women through and through, something which could have feasibly made the third Women LP we’ll never have. Droning along before settling into a bubbling, bass-driven groove with unconventional asides in musical phrasing — not to mention the dark lyric, “If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die” — “Pointless Experience” has a few old Women tricks adjusted to a new template. Songs like these are to be expected from a group transitioning from underneath a huge shadow.

But whereas Women primarily trafficked in arty garage-noir, the band’s successor finds itself shuffling with the grooves of post-punk. It’s not as though the former was loosey-goosey by any sense of the imagination, but you got the feeling the band could go completely off the rails at any second (and sometimes they did). Viet Cong is as tight as a pickle jar. Eleven-minute closer “Death” seamlessly transitions between steady (the song’s first suite) and twitchy (its second), siphoning in woozy, dissonant blasts and the sort of knotty fretwork easily found on Women’s self-titled debut.

Even in the band’s poppiest moments, Women was a band presented exclusively in grayscale. Viet Cong follows the same color template, save for album standout “March of Progress.” That song starts out with a heavily treated, seemingly industrial-rock-influenced drum loop and bright No Age-y drone, which cedes itself to a dreamy garage-pop interlude with stereo-panned guitars made to sound like the titular broken harp in a PJ Harvey song.

Then it makes way for the most surprising and infectious moment on the album, a coda more iridescent and ecstatic than anything either Viet Cong or Women have recorded before. (It’s also accompanied by some very sharp hi-hat playing; never underestimate the reliance on the hi-hat in post-punk music.) “March of Progress” plays less like an outlier on the album and more like a well-executed turn off the beaten path, complementing the album’s darker tracks and using its lyrical themes (when Flegel sings, “What is the difference between love and hate?” here, it’s less a question he wants answered and more a statement on their proximity in meaning) to add to the album’s whole.

Viet Cong makes immediate the point of Women’s legacy not being snuffed out early, it’s as beguiling and irresistible as rock music gets these days, consistent with the standards of the band’s earlier incarnation. But it’s also a marked departure from the style. Post-punk often gets a reputation for hewing too closely to the pioneers of the genre, while Viet Cong makes an effort to marking their own territory, separate from aesthetic and slowly-but-surely distancing themselves from anything they’ve done before.

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