LIARS: TFCF

(Mute Records; 2017)

Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!

LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)

But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?

The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.


LIARS: MESS

(MUTE RECORDS; 2014)

liars_mess

Anxious times require anxious music. For some of us, anyway. Oh sure, it’s great to put on a platter that soothes and comforts and makes you forget all your dreary, unsolvable problems, while giving you a false sense of hope that all will most likely be well. But if you’re really tensed up about things, and pretty sure the human race is on a downward spiral, and you just want to hear a band that not only soundtracks that MESS of a mood, but somehow makes it exciting and even a communal, deliriously cathartic experience, well then, Liars are your band. Honestly, these guys are one of the most hypnotic, darkly alluring rock acts putting sound to disc these days, and whether you know about them or not, I’m here to tell you they’ve made seven straight fantastic albums in the new millennium, and there ain’t many who can make that claim. Based in LA these days (but having originated in Brooklyn), the trio of Angus Andrew (one of rock’s most ferociously original presences), Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross embody an aesthetic that’s hard to pin down; they stray away from formula as a rule, and try to make each album as different as possible from the last one, yet the truth about Liars is that the music occupies a “post punk” sort of realm which allows for clang-banging industrial grooves, atonal freneticism, evocative ambient, danceable rock/techno riffs and witchy, twitchy, tribal chants to co-exist in a unified, original blend. No album is exactly like the last one, but none are as radically different as the band would sometimes have you believe. They are consistent in the mesmerizing, unsettling brew they serve up, owing to Andrew’s memorable vocal style (he can careen from snarling low tones to gorgeously evocative falsetto in an instant), insistent rhythm tracks throughout their recorded oeuvre, and a willingness to experiment with electronica in a mostly rocking context. No one song is necessarily all that original, but Liars seem to accumulate a more and more unique sonic perspective as time goes on. They have attitude a-plenty.

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

Liars (photo credit: ZEN SEKIZAWA)

So, what of this new MESS recording? Well, it’s got a lot of catchy synth-based electronica grooves, a veneer of angsty (yet often comical) dismay at the state of things, and a fairly polished production (despite that title). If you remember that news item from a few years back about a drug-addled nutcase who tried to eat another man’s face off, the distorted spoken word spook-chants that open “Mask Maker” won’t put you in the most ebullient mood, but the basic track is standard electronic riffage that you can tap your feet to. In general, the lyrics on Liars recordings aren’t what you notice; you probably won’t pick out verses such as “I can’t get better/I want the best though/If I’m running out of lifetime/You should just say so” on the track “Vox Tuned DED,” but you’ll be bobbing your head and taking note of the gripping aural atmosphere that is beginning to build. Check off references like Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Ultravox and Underworld if you want, but this is Liars’ world; you just stumble around in it. “I’m No Gold” is a relatively long track (six plus minutes), but the rockin’ is solid and the distorted vocals will take you prisoner fairly quickly. And “Pro Anti Anti” is genuinely a hypnotic track, with some minimal keyboard sorcery, a proggy latter section and a lyric that seems rather emblematic of these guys: “They brood in ecstasy, a thought to wrap your head ’round.” Yeah, CHECK! “Can’t Hear Well” features Andrew singing through a voice-muddling device over a repeating 3-tone synth riff that you simply can’t ignore; It’s even kinda sad. This music is just NOT like other music. Tune it in, mofos, or get da ef outa here! But if you’ve been sorta “meh” up to this point, “Mess On a Mission” will lasso your full attention with its contrapuntal rhythms, a Talking Heads kinda vibe, Andrew’s going both full falsetto (on what passes for a chorus here, something like “our next solution” repeated over and over) and the inescapable refrain, “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction,” pounded at your eardrums like it’s the most important utterance ever made, and who knows, perhaps it is. This is one damned memorable slab of music. “Darkslide” is a creepy instrumental that harkens back to THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, the group’s maligned but underrated 2003 opus on all things witchy and witchcrafty. “Dress Walker” is danceable and irresistible, just simple, captivating modern electro-rock that does its thing efficiently and evocatively, with the bonus of interesting lyrics such as “From the floor, another new passage, another exit/I refused, I was exactly where I belonged/When the world sings from the halls and the demon’s at the door/Let the one inside and sing along,” if you care to read the booklet while you are listening. Liars, by the way, do NOT usually feature the lyrics on their releases. “Perpetual Village” is quintessential Liars: weird, trancey, dark and long (nine glorious minutes!), doing a wonderfully Bowie-esque job of keeping your attention through its determinedly insular electro-murk. And then things close out with the downright haunting “Left Speaker Blown,” which seems to evoke both Brian Eno in its ambient overtones and Joy Division in its underlying bleakness. But ear pleasing, nonetheless. Liars really can’t be pigeonholed; though they can be dissonant at times, they are NOT all that abrasive, and they are drawn to hypnotic, recurring sounds and rhythms, which serves them well. They behave like a tribe, honestly, and their music has always had tribal elements in it. If you happen to wander into their part of the sonic jungle, which is a bit of an unsettling place, they won’t hurt you or “eat your face off,” despite whatever fears you might have. In fact, they’d probably invite you to their camp for some homemade beer and mad late-night dancing. Just don’t expect them to stick around or see to your accommodations, though. Liars are on the MOVE, driven by some force that only they truly understand. A decade-plus of their sonic sojourns has been a compelling thing for us fans of adventurous music. Sure, the results may be a MESS at times, but there’s pure MAGIC just as often. As for me, I’m puttin’ on the face paint, drinking something potent and getting ready to dance around the fire. In my head, anyway, which Liars have sent me far down the twisting corridors of. Anxiety may be pressing in from the darkness, but ya know what? I ain’t that scared no more! Liars got my back…