Music Review: The Proud Evolution of Liars — from “They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top” to “Mess”
The dazzling LP “Mess” proves that the band Liars has not half-heartedly made the switch to electronic music.
The discography of Brooklyn trio Liars is among rock music’s most consistent in quality but varied in style. The band has prided itself on making a dramatic sonic shift from album to album and has so far stuck the landing every single time. Still, despite being aesthetic chameleons, everything they have turned out is unmistakably a “Liars product.”
In 2001, Liars set the stage for their career with their rollicking dance-punk debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. This release showcased the group’s penchant for noisy, off-the-wall rock compositions as well as frontman Angus Andrew’s often unaffected vocals and eccentric lyricism. They had already begun screwing with listeners’ expectations of genre – the LP closes with a dreary 50-second-long lurch of piano and percussion, followed by a 30-minute-long piece that rides the same sample-driven (suggestions of the orchestral spikes that accompany the shower scene in Psycho) groove for the last two thirds of its runtime.
For sure, those last two tracks made for some baffling moments on their otherwise straight-rocking debut. It turned the heads of many reviewers, but the critical consensus was that the band has made a record that was sufficiently strange and fun. But the band turned the weirdness up to 11 on their sophomore effort (and Mute debut) They Were Wrong, So We Drowned a piece of no-wave revival with a loose witchcraft concept. There were still plenty of entertaining moments over the course of the LP, particularly the explosive “Hold Hands and It Will Happen Anyway.” But this time around the critics were not very amused: the album received damning grades from Rolling Stone, which gave it one star and compared it to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and Spin, which gave it an F and called it “unlistenable.”
Thankfully, the band had the support of more adventurous publications, such as The Wire and Tiny Mix Tapes, the latter even comparing the album to Radiohead’s Kid A. Thus the band moved into its third album with a fair degree of a welcome reception. But I don’t think anyone quite anticipated 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead,which was a masterful psychedelic concept album: it proved the dichotomy of the human psyche, examining the conflict between our confident and productive side and our stressful and self-doubtful side. Not only did the trio create their most powerful thematic arc to date, but they delivered their most impressive example of soundcraft as well. Angus’ bizarre falsetto meshed remarkably with Aaron Hemphill’s droning guitars and Julian Gross’ propulsive drums.
Liars had a handful of haters, but Drum’s Not Dead was hailed by some at its release as an art-rock masterwork. The band followed it up with a self-titled effort in 2007, which remains their most eclectic release by far. In the first three songs there are elements of punk, noise-rock, stoner-rock, surf-rock, post-rock, and no-wave. Never had the group’s pervasive theme of creative uncertainty and anxiety manifested itself so obviously: yet somehow it made for a listening experience that was more-or-less unhinged in an enjoyable way.
The threesome narrowed their focus a bit more with 2010’s Sisterworld, an LP that could pretty consistently be described as post-rock. It had the distinction of being their most dynamic effort up to that point – the abrupt bursts of distorted guitar, frenetic drums, and wailed vocals in tracks like “Scissor” and “Goodnight Everything” weren’t the types of transitions that the Liars was used to making in individual songs. But they nailed these jagged structures as though they’d been doing it all along. Ultimately, Sisterworld received a warm reception from critics and is widely seen as one of their catalogue’s greatest achievements. Still, I wish the reaction had been even stronger because I feel that this LP is a criminally overlooked entry in the post-rock genre. It pulls off a nimble balance between melancholia and the soaring themes that are present in most (if not all) of post-rock. Also, those horns on “Goodnight Everything” – they are positively breathtaking.
The aural leap Liars made from Sisterworld to their next project, WIXIW was stark but perhaps not as surprising as earlier efforts. The band was entering the world of dark ambient music, which, given that post-rock titan Sigur Rós was going in a similar direction the same year (Valtari), seems like a natural step for the Liars to take. Also, somewhat unsurprisingly, they made the switch to electronic instrumentation almost flawlessly. Interestingly, Angus and company appear to have been taking cues from Björk more than any other electronic artist or act throughout the recording process – the booming and lasering penultimate track “Brats” reminds me of “Pluto,” the second-to-last song on Homogenic. Calling WIXIW Liars’ Homogenic is an apt description, though one I’m not prepared to throw around all too often.
Now, with the release of Mess, I take it back. WIXIW is more like Liars’ Vespertine; Mess is their Homogenic. Yes, the band’s new album still focuses on the electronic, but despite the fact that the instrumental palette remains the same, the differences between consecutive Liars albums have never been more glaring. Mute’s press release (yes, Mute has stood by them) states that the band has said that making Mess was “almost the exact opposite experience to producing WIXIW.” According to Angus, “instead of being doubtful, work on the new album has been immediate, fun, instinctual and confident.” It doesn’t take long for this newfound confidence to come across.
“Take my pants off. Use my socks. Smell my socks. Eat my face off.”
“Mask Maker” kicks the disc off with the above vulgar, warped voice samples, a bubbling synth arpeggio rising in the background. Then a propulsive house drum-machine sequence charges in and the song starts building into something massive. It is soon clear that this is Liars’ most immaculately arranged and produced album yet. There are just so many layers in this song – harsh synth spikes, an overwhelming organ-like texture, as well as skittering vocal samples of Angus’ voice that add dashes of color to his decidedly monotone delivery. “Mask Maker” is Liars reaching through your speakers, grabbing you by the face, and demanding that you pay attention, which you should want to do anyway because these first few minutes suggest that this album has the potential to be a game-changer.
This intro sets the bar high and it is immediately reached by “Vox Tuned D.E.D.,” whose hard-hitting beat, orchestral synth tones, and climactic conclusion probably make it the most passionate track on the record. A close contender is “Pro Anti Anti,” which definitely proffers the heaviest instrumental punch of the bunch, with bassy synth rumbles and crashing percussion, as well as a forceful chanted vocal from Angus. Liars execute these more aggressive tracks extraordinarily well, preserving their messy punk roots in the midst of the pristinely recorded proceedings. Songs like the dynamic “I’m No Gold,” the off-the-wall lead single “Mess on a Mission,” and the wonky instrumental interlude “Darkslide” also deliver the same sort of thrills.
“Say the word ‘limb.’ Say the word ‘name.’ Say the word ‘limb.’”
But as the album goes on the softer side of Liars appears. Given the strengths of WIXIW, we know that this mellow approach is just as worthwhile. Although it hasn’t proven to be a highlight for many, I’m quite taken by “Can’t Hear Well,” something of an interlude between the bangers “Pro Anti Anti” and “Mess on a Mission.” It’s the most minimalist moment on the CD, but I enjoy the interplay between Angus’ muffled, downcast voice and the waving synth drone, which itself has a nice build despite not being layered much. Another moment Angus’ voice shines for me is on “Dress Walker,” a buoyant performance from him that is fittingly underlined by one of the LP’s most detailed instrumentals. His voice wows in another way on “Boyzone” and the 9-minute-long “Perpetual Village,” which see things taking a turn for the dark and slightly unsettling – mind you, not to the extent of being off-putting. They’re like watching a David Lynch movie… or listening to a more interestingly-produced David Lynch tune.
And not since “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” has Liars penned a song as moving as “Left Speaker Blown.” With the beat’s bass foundation turned down to a low rumble, its plinky keyboard, and shaky orchestral strings, the track suggests that the band’s confidence has suddenly vanished, that the uncertainty and angst of works like Liars and WIXIW are returning with a vengeance. However, Angus’ gently-sung lyrics display an impressive new level of candidness and thoughtfulness. Liars is holding strength in reserve, rather indulging in self-pity, when Angus sings the closing lines, “I gave no fight, I’m not weak/I gave up captured, without force, freely.”
Liars have in no way half-heartedly made the switch to electronic music, Mess is “a true-blue of blend techno, house, and some kind of undefinable third element that can only be described as ‘Liars.’” Even as they change their sound, recording practices, and worldviews, this elemental identity has remained with them. After seven distinctively bold albums, I’m convinced they won’t ever lose it.