Live Review: Viet Cong @ The Brightside
Canadian post-punk outfit Viet Cong have been making music for quite some time now, but it’s only recently that they have truly broken through to mainstream media, a point evidenced with their near sold out show at Brisbane’s the Brightside. Several unfortunate circumstances unrelated to the band’s impressively eclectic and nuanced sounds have led to these developments, as well as influencing their remarkable metamorphosis from the more experimental and loosely structured group Women, to the final stage of their transformation into post punk visionaries Viet Cong, which was marked by the release of their ambitious self-titled debut album. ‘Viet Cong’ sees the group seamlessly blend jangly guitars, brooding synthesisers, monotone vocals, and the bravura of prog rock; basically all of the elements that made Women and the original Viet Cong great bands rolled into one sublime package.
The band’s journey to get to this point was certainly not an easy one. Women were firstly burdened by internal problems, resulting in an onstage fight that led to an indefinite hiatus. The band’s guitarist, Christopher Reimer, later passed away, which permanently ended the band’s hiatus and the band itself. Women bassist Matt Flegel went on to form Viet Cong, which saw him take on the more commanding role of lead singer. This was not the end of the challenges Viet Cong faced, with protestors swarming shows and online petitions demanding the band change their controversial name. As of yet, Viet Cong remain Viet Cong, although band members have spoken up about their regrets in choosing a name that comes with such incredibly grim connotations of violence and death. These are arguably themes the band personifies with their music, which is perhaps why they chose the name in the first place. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how Viet Cong as a name comes off as needlessly provocative, appropriative and insensitive toward the suffering endured by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It remains to be seen how the band will evolve and tackle these new challenges in the near future, but for now they seem to be doing a pretty good job as Viet Cong.
“Although Death is the destination for the night, Viet Cong take on us a pulsating journey to get there.”
Viet Cong’s live show at Brisbane’s Brightside was burdened by events outside of their control, mirroring their volatile, but ultimately successful emergence in the independent music scene. First of all, the set times were pushed forward to a ridiculously early 7:50pm. This meant that Viet Cong would headline at a modest 9:30pm and that everything would be wrapped up by 10:30pm – a dismal foreshadowing of what may come with Brisbane’s impending lockout laws. Although this was no deal breaker, it was a particularly ill-fitting time slot for a band as dark and melancholic as Viet Cong. It also showed a lack of respect for the band as a prominent artist that deserved a more appropriate headlining slot of around 10:30pm or 11:30pm. In addition to this, the sound on the night was mediocre, with many of the vocals being drowned out and coming off as a little subdued and underwhelming. In spite of these minor annoyances, Viet Cong’s live show was a perfect mirror to their debut release; brave, jaw dropping and full of surprises.
Viet Cong take the stage showered in a suggestive red lighting that anticipates the evocative, dark content of their music. There’s not much more you can expect from a band that closes their debut album with a ten-minute epilogue called Death. Although Death is the destination for the night, Viet Cong take on us a pulsating journey to get there. They start with the decidedly more upbeat Throw It Away from their EP ‘Cassette’ that owes more to Television’s jangly guitar licks than the synth-driven, desolate drawl of Joy Division. Post-punk is a varied genre filled with conflicting influences including synth-pop, krautrock, glam, and the straight-up three-chord structures of punk. This is also why Viet Cong are difficult to pin down as a group that flirts with many of the sounds that emerged during this short, but exciting era of music. The next song, Unconscious Melody, bears many of the colourful synth strokes that brighten up the tracks on ‘Cassette’, but there are hints of the full-fledged gloom explored on ‘Viet Cong’, with a suggestive bass line that dips just a few octaves lower. This transition is physically mirrored with the band’s drummer taring off his shirt and exposing himself to the audience, just as ‘Viet Cong lays the band’s raw emotions bare.
Viet Cong tare into the tracks of their debut album with the shell-shock inducing Silhouettes, leaving the songs off ‘Cassette’ feeling much like a prologue for the real deal. Having a self-titled debut is symbolic in many ways for a band with a history as complicated and traumatic as Viet Cong. The album definitely lives up to the idea that the band we are a seeing and hearing are an entirely different beast to the band that made ‘Cassette’. This was pointedly demonstrated with Silhouette; the authoritative, commanding vocals of Flegel firmly announce that Viet Cong have arrived, with the song’s wailing guitar licks and burring synthesiser further enhancing this impression. The band waste no time coursing through the rest of the material on ‘Viet Cong’, all of which rightfully deserve a place in their live set, with the absence of excellent songs like Newspaper Spoons firmly felt. A jarring guitar riff opens Bunker Buster, which contrasts nicely with the more vibrant opening tracks from ‘Cassette’, proving just how far the band have come. By this point, a small group of devoted fans have congregated at the front of the stage, showing just how affecting Viet Cong’s music is.
Woozy synth tones transition us into March of Progress, but this doesn’t dampen the zest of the near mosh-pit-like assembly by the stage. March of Progress is a solid constellation of everything Viet Cong are about; throbbing, industrial drums that lure you into a trance, surprisingly delicate guitar strokes that almost recall classical, Spanish guitar and peculiar chanting vocals. All of these haunting, evocative sounds are just one piece of the Viet Cong puzzle and it effectively disintegrates as Scott “Monty” Munro’s synthesisers suddenly blast through, taking the song in a completely different direction. And that folks, is what Viet Cong is really about.
While March of Progress is definitely the highlight of the band’s debut album and vivacious live-set, Death is the song that truly brings everything together; a tour-de-force in complex song writing with a big emotional payoff. Just when you think the song’s closing instrumentals can’t possibly extend any further and that the band cannot possibly have enough stamina to continue, they come back three-fold and launch into another round of crashing, manic drums and shrieking guitars complimented by the thrashing bodily movements of both the band and the audience.
Viet Cong slow down the pace at points, almost tricking the audience into thinking that this is it – it’s all over and done with – but then they only come back harder and faster, and the audience returns the favour. Both the band and the fans refuse to let go. Eventually and inevitably, of course, it does end – but not without a damned good fight from both Viet Cong and their devoted fans. History shows us that it was not an easy battle for Viet Cong to get to where they are now, but for a band that sounds so big and important, this is hardly surprising.
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Photos by Tom Sue Yek