Well, can’t say we saw that one coming! In the next phase of the ever-evolving state that has come to define them, experimental indie rock chameleons Liars come to us now as… a synth pop band?! Well, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But still, on new record Mess, we find Liars a far cry away from the blistering, experimental guitar noise of the past. “Brats” off the last record WIXIW was the teaser — now Mess takes us all the way under the surface for a visceral, intense, and ultimately, very danceable look at their next reveal. Distortion and dark ambiguity have been replaced by sharp, brutal dance tracks accompanied by a poignant and anticipatory social commentary. With Mess, the band’s 7th LP over their brutal, brilliant 14 year span, the trio hasn’t lost a bit of their energy, mystique, or challenging draw. “A Mess On A Mission” couldn’t be a better descriptor for Liars, and this week, we get to relearn why.
“Cast out of culture, compound of patience without rigor.” That’s how Angus Andrew starts off the lead single for Mess. Really, that lyrics might serve better in the sonic landscape of 2012’s WIXIW, which saw the band at (arguably) their most ambient state. Andrew and his bandmates described the process behind making WIXIW as difficult, drawn-out, and unnatural. WIXIX took the wandering bits of 2010’s Sisterworld and expanded on the feeling of loss and confusion on a digital landscape. While it occasionally jumped in heartbeat on tracks like “Brats” and “A Ring On Every Finger”, the tone of the album could be described as laborious to say the least. But following the rabbit trail down a little further, it seems like the claustrophobia haunting WIXIW melted into an appreciation of the dark, lurching dance music that helped inspire it. And now, Mess gives us a sequel that couldn’t have taken a more stark turn. Andrew said in a press release that the process for Mess was meant to be a 180 degree turn – instinctual and confident… maybe even fun.
If you’ve been around the block with Liars, you know the band is no stranger to fun. In fact, cuts off their 2001 debut like “We Live NE of Compton” and “Mr Your On Fire Mr” run circles around their 2001 dance punk counterparts. It’s the fact that Liars went from that end of the spectrum across the devastating, confounding wasteland of records like Drum’s Not Dead all the way to WIXIW that makes them a one of a kind act on the scene. So perhaps the most confounding thing to do for lucky number seven was to return to their dance roots so far gone, albeit only at a very high level. Mess sounds nothing like They Threw Us All In A Trench, but the collection of punk-spirited Europop cuts it presents us with is the most danceable thing they’ve put forth in more than a decade. And of course, that just leaves us scratching our heads, permanently confused about how to pin these guys down. I hope we never do.
Mess leaves all hesitation to the wind from the get go. It opens with “Mask Maker”, where Angus Andrew’s distorted growl spouts off an unsettling list of free association commands (including “eat my face off”) over a throbbing dance beat. He’s like the 24 hour automated help line from Hell. “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” follows up immediately almost as if the continuation of the same song. But where the opener focuses on disorientation and impact, “Vox” dials the groove in for a pounding, radio-ready dance cut that sees Liars at their most accessible. But the pop cadence couldn’t be more appropriate for the lyrical accompaniment. Andrew wails that he’s running out of time, but feels that any guise of real expression is being clouded by a societal expectation of normative explanation. “They say I’m not a teacher”, Andrew sings, recognizing that the mess is being contained by means of censor and selection. “I’m No Gold”, heard before on the album’s trailer, throws a beat behind the minimalism we saw on WIXIW for a slow-building, dark piece of late acid house mastery. “Pro Anti Anti” matches a death march dance track with a Europop organ break that makes for quite the dichotomy. Meanwhile, Andrew beckons listeners to make a decision between the immediacy of the moment and the anticipation of the next – its a brilliant and quite stressful endeavor. Things quiet momentarily on “Can’t Hear Well” before going back full throttle into the album’s lead single.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Liars if you didn’t get completely thrown off at some point on the record. For the second half, any semblance of dance floor friendliness digresses into brooding, churning, dark electronic impressionism. “Darkslide” has the boys playing with oscillating noise for three and half minutes before the B-side welcome wagon rolls in on “Boyzone”. The latter is a threatening mixture of sexuality and ambiguity, always sounding like its about to pounce without warning, but only ever keeping you on the edge of your seat. “Dress Walker” makes for an easy late album highlight. The cold groove builds throughout, adding more textures and clever use of synthesizers and vocals to make a brutal landscape more livable. The epic, 9-minute “Perpetual Village”, matches the WIXIW sound with the endlessly teeming likeness of Trent Reznor’s How To Destroy Angels project, with a minimalism that still lends itself to live interpretation. Finally, “Left Speaker Blown” closes the record just shy of an hour with a gorgeous, mourning piece of landscape, proving that it still doesn’t take an endless maze of wires to make an incredibly moving Liars track.
The way that Mess is shaped, it feels like the buildup to a bomb explosion, followed by a survey of the devastated terrain. Mess’s second half is pretty light on lyrics (especially ones you can understand apart from having them in your hand), while the first has Andrew scolding and prophesying like an angry seer. The album’s message is one of anxiety — a people who have a quickly disappearing chance at making a change that will save them. But eventually, the burning string will run out and the bomb will go off, leaving us all with nothing at all. Rather than give us the lead up and then end with a choice, Liars choose for us: we picked wrong, and the second half is the outcome. The shift of energy and shape of the record is, in that, a very Hitchcock-style effort. A dance record soundscape shaped by a message of impending doom for those who ignore the societal outliers and tend towards the pulsing, four to the floor, party-ready norm? Truly, irony and communication don’t get much better than that.
Liars have done it again with Mess. The record is out this week on Mute. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Liars are ready and primed to melt (or eat) your face off at Sasquatch! Music Festival this year over Memorial Day Weekend! Be there and don’t forget to bring your dancing shoes.