New Material taps into the bewildering contradictions woven into our human experience.
We are beset by contradictions. Our lives are full of them on both individual and collective scales. Some are willful, and some imposed. The inconsistencies, imperfections, and paradoxes amass with impunity, to the point where it often feels like our lived experience is something excruciatingly squeezed out of the clash between various opposing forces.
Take, for example, the conflict between stasis and change. It’s housed in our relentless march of progress that’s continually stymied by socio-political discord and inaction. In how the natural world is changing violently, yet our complicity in it proceeds unchanged. In how we can long for a change in scenery or fortune, yet simultaneously crave for things to stay the way they are; in how we can feel utterly trapped by our nature, locked into our self-destructive habits despite our body’s continuous maturation. It’s a horrifying, exhausting run-around that both sustains our experience and often makes it seem unendurable. It’s also the engine that propels New Material, the newest release from Calgary’s Preoccupations.
The conflict can be heard right from the opening salvo “Espionage”. Over the repetitive rhythm of the bridge, bassist and vocalist Matt Flegel utters, “change is everything, changing everything, changes everything”, while an additional vocal line, “but it’s nowhere to be found”, plays alongside. These duelling lyrical sentiments clash and meld together, capturing the utterly perplexing ways in which stasis and change can drag us forward, pull us apart, run us in circles, all while keeping us rooted in place. This trend in the lyrics continues: over the taut, wiry rhythms of “Decompose”, Flegel croons, “for better for worse we are cursed in the ways we tend to be”, arguing for how our choices can continue to define us even as our lives dwindle down. On “Manipulation”, we cyclically “charm and betray, ruin and replay, seduce and deceive, destroy and repeat”; on “Doubt”, our “cells divide and multiply and multiply, and we can’t help ourselves”, and we are locked into recursive patterns of unchecked growth and division.
The pervading sense of duality can be heard in the music as well. While it’s mostly measured, minimal, and brilliantly controlled, it’s not hard to hear the pent-up desperation simmering beneath its surface, begging to be unleashed. When the chromed-out, mechanized exterior of these songs falls away, and the band allows this desperation to bubble over, the results are stunning. “Disarray” is the sound of a besieged mind warring against itself. Flegel’s vocals reverberate against a delicate wall of dramatic guitar leads, resulting in the band’s most earnest, emotionally jarring piece of music to date. Elsewhere, the compositions progress logically from the sounds Preoccupations have cultivated on their previous albums. New Materialis not so much an exercise in musical evolution as it is an effort to plumb deeper into foundational aesthetics. The band’s brooding, ominous atmosphere remains, it’s just deconstructed and thrown into starker relief.
Flegel has said in a statement that New Material is “an ode to depression and self-sabotage and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” While that may sound like an overtly negative sentiment, it translates into a record that strives for emotional efficacy over anything else. It’s replete with earnest meditations on living with the self in its entirety, including the parts we obscure, construct, despise, and we wish we could change. When the album appears defeatist and morose (“to live is to suffer again and again”; “I don’t want this, no one wants this anymore”), it merely seeks to remind us of our common struggles that often seem impossible to overcome — staying decent in the face of cynical apathy; staying human in the face of inhumanity; remaining humble before a physical world that we’ve grown increasingly alienated from.
Preoccupations has made a record that taps into, and unmistakably laments, the bewildering contradictions woven into our experience. However, in doing so, the band reveal these inconsistencies as essential, inescapable provisos of being human. To isolate ourselves from this fact is to block out any understanding of how to move forward. New Material commits itself to crawling through a mire of unsettling truths in an attempt to arrive bruised and battered at some kind of redemption.