It’s 11:27 PM at the Echoplex and Viet Cong is wasted. The band shambles out from backstage three minutes before their scheduled set time, equal parts flattered and bemused by a warm ovation from the sold-out crowd. Bassist and frontman Matthew Flegel carries a bounty of leftover green room amenities to the foot of the stage and begins auctioning off the stash to diehards in the front row. “Let’s see here,” slurring into the mic, “we’ve got a few apples, some PBR…” He keeps a cereal bar for himself. “Daddy needs his NutriGrain.” Later, Flegel will bash a banana against his bass strings during a chaotic noise breakdown, both music and fruit disintegrating into a pulpy mess.
The cavalier attitude with which Viet Cong approach tonight’s gig, moved from the Echo to the much larger Plex due to overwhelming demand, seems indicative of a larger “who gives a shit” ethos that permeates the band’s extramusical image in the media. Last week, the group made national headlines after a show at Oberlin College was cancelled by the promoter, who cited a “grossly ignorant and deeply offensive” name as the impetus for the decision. The controversy undoubtedly lingers in the minds of many in attendance tonight, and the group’s lackadaisical entrance only raises further questions. It is entirely possible that the band has overshot its Ideal Drunkeness Quotient this evening, paving the way for a Replacements-style meltdown. The crowd emits scattered laughter and whispers as the silliness ensues, evoking a collective awkward collar tug. Suspicion is in the air tonight. After some more nonsensical banter and a lengthy pause to tune up, drummer Michael Wallace counts off “Throw It Away,” the opening track from the band’s Cassette EP.
The initial guitar salvo explodes from the amps with unprecedented authority. Heads down, the band promptly locks in to an anxious, twitchy groove that recalls early Talking Heads recordings. Flegel barks out corrosive lyrics with the cadence of a stoned drill instructor as guitarists Danny Christiansen and Scott Munro blaze the trail ahead, their serrated riffs somehow threading the needle between exuberance and despair. They trade jabs with Wallace, whose drumming enforces some sense of rigidity as the band spirals down the Byzantine corridors of these songs. The group’s near-telepathic connection, ostensibly honed through months of touring behind this material, is both gripping and surprising. Before our very eyes, Viet Cong has transformed from a sloppy gang of inebriates into a force that cares a great deal about making serious, compelling music.
Album highlight “March of Progress” ends up being the only disappointment of the night; the queasy drum opening is rendered in sterile 4/4 time as opposed to the unsettling 3/4 on the recording, and mixing issues force a muzzle on Christiansen’s ecstatic guitar during the coda. The misstep is immediately corrected by way of a fiery “Bunker Buster”, whose whiplash-inducing hook hits twice as hard in person. During the drum break, Munro unleashes a harsh feedback squall that is both hypnotizing and ruthless, qualities that extend to the performance as a whole. The set closes with “Death”, a restless and sprawling opus that builds to a suffocating level of tension before collapsing like a black hole. The band cycles through a primordial two-chord riff endlessly, bludgeoning the audience with a sonic assault that lasts for over five minutes. The spectacle evokes the avant-garde sensibilities of Glenn Branca, swapping out heady intellectualism for the raw energy of a basement punk show. In subjecting their audience to this interminable loop, the band is actively exploring new frontiers of how guitars, drums, and bass can inspire a reaction – this is vital rock music being made at a time when the idea of “vital rock music” already sounds like an anachronism.
The stunning musicianship on display tonight answers every question but the big one: can Viet Cong justify their decision to identify themselves in such a problematic way (to use the parlance of our times)? Aside from the obvious issue of four white Canadians appropriating a symbol of violence and trauma for many Vietnamese people, the most potent argument against Viet Cong’s name is the band’s apparent thoughtlessness in choosing it. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Wallace cites an early practice in which Flegel was “kind of shooting his bass like a gun. I said: ‘All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.’ … We just honestly thought it sounded good and that it gives some imagery that matches our music…” Certainly the tone of this music conjures adjectives that were also used to describe the guerrilla tactics of the VC: brutal, menacing, relentless. But even the historical Viet Cong perceived their wartime atrocities as a means to an ideological end. Viet Cong the band has simply cribbed the disturbing connotations of their name without defining any purpose in doing so or even considering why those associations exist in the first place.
In 2015, as notions of social justice continue to blossom both on the web and in the streets, there is no room to be pointlessly offensive anymore. Artists still have the right to provoke (just as much as the audience has the right to be offended), but to do so without a clear objective will inevitably undermine anything else they may be trying to say. Viet Cong make a thrilling argument for the future of rock music, but their stubborn adherence to a vapid, wounding moniker betrays a dangerously outdated mode of thinking about their art and the world it is part of.