Living in Calgary in the late aughts was a surprisingly exciting time. In the midst of a thriving music community clustered around new venues and festivals, all eyes were on the beloved band Women. The tight-knit quartet—singer/guitarist Pat Flegel, bassist/brother Matt Flegel, guitarist Chris Reimer and drummer Mike Wallace—had played together in a few previous guises, but it was this group that crystallized their sui generis sound. Spidery guitarmonies, stately rhythms and haunted vocals emerged as heart-stopping pop songs out of cold storage; it was a glint of light within the bleak and oblique.
Women’s 2008 self-titled debut (co-released by Jagjaguwar and Calgary label Flemish Eye) sent out shockwaves, but it was 2010’s Public Strain that caused a true seismic shift. On top of international accolades, the four-piece amassed a cult following, inspiring small legions of identikit groups. This should have been the first in a long line of successes, but the stresses of touring sadly took their toll, resulting in a bitter and unceremonious rupture. Two years later, the unspeakable happened, with guitarist Chris Reimer tragically passing away in his sleep.
These events loom large for Viet Cong, the latest incarnation from one half of Women, yet they process the past with their sights on the future. The seeds for this project were planted by members Matt Flegel and Scott “Monty” Munro as they logged miles on the road backing up Chad VanGaalen. Initial experiments with electronics and drum machines began before Women stickman Mike Wallace re-entered the fold, but that necessity birthed a re-invention. The last traces of pop have now been obliterated by batcaver anthems built on twin pillars of post-rock and post-punk, like the midnight spawn of Mogwai and Mission of Burma.
“I don’t think there was any conscious decision to sound like Women or unlike Women,” says Matt Flegel over the phone from his newly adopted home on Vancouver Island. “I was always interested in the darker, dronier things we were doing, while Pat was the one writing pure pop songs. I enjoy that kind of music too, I’m just not as good at writing it as my brother. When we started recording, I didn’t want there to be too many three and a half minute songs. I liked the idea of pummeling and sprawling.”
Six-string shredder Daniel Christiansen was the final piece of this monochrome puzzle. Though he made his mark on the local scene as a member of the late, great Sharp Ends, Christiansen was scouted onto the squad after playing with Flegel in a Black Sabbath cover band (as people tend to do in Calgary). While living a double life as an architectural technologist, the least road-worn member of Viet Cong has already earned a few reputations.
“He’s the only guy in the band who has a real job, but also the only one who never has any money,” laughs Flegel. “When they started cracking down on the dark web, he was really upset. I’m pretty sure he’s traded in his life savings for bitcoins.”
“Danny is a ball of energy though, and he definitely wears off on us in a good way,” Matt continues. “Half the time he has no idea where we are, but he’s always excited like a little boy. Musically, he’s one of my favourite guitar players, and he’s also extremely entertaining to watch. Danny has some weird moves for sure.”
As they geared up to hit the road for the first time in 2013, the band collected the best of their bedroom recordings onto a tour-only cassette (later rescued from merch table obscurity with a reissue from Mexican Summer). On this odds and sods introduction, sunnier songs like “Oxygen Feed” and “Throw It Away” are juxtaposed with the jackhammering robo-rock of “Select Your Drone” and sorrowful shimmer of “Static Wall,” one of several tributes to Reimer. Its lyrics may focus on grief, but Flegel based the song on a vivid memory.
“When I shared a house with Chris, there was a static drone noise coming from his room at all times,” he says. “That was the static wall.”
Viet Cong’s first release had no shortage of stunning moments, but it’s become abundantly clear they were just getting started. Last year, the band traveled to the modified barn/studio of Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh to lay down their monolithic self-titled LP. From the razorwire thrashing of “Bunker Buster” to the mesmeric machine music of “March of Progress,” the group shifts gears with overdriven precision. Elsewhere, on the ice-kissed “Continental Shelf” and synth-driven “Silhouette” they gaze back at a closet goth side unveiled on the cassette’s Bauhaus cover “Dark Entries.” Yet every review will surely conclude with the Earth-scorching “Death,” an 11-minute ender to beat all album enders, and a powerful paean to a lost friend.
Though it’s only the first month of 2015, the band has already left a high water mark on the year’s musical offerings. If previous performances are any indication, their upcoming live tours across Canada, the U.S. and Europe will only continue to ramp up the intensity. As he nears the state of a musical lifer, Flegel relates that it’s difficult to imagine doing anything else.
“At this point, it’s hard not to do it,” he says. “Until I have a really good excuse like having kids, I’m probably not going to stop. Personally, I’d like to have a go at it while I’m still reasonably young and willing to cram myself in a van with three other dudes. Right now we’re saying yes to pretty much everything.”