Despite a long, illustrious, career — one that spans 12 years and seven albums — Liars still don’t seem like they belong anywhere. They’re even an odd fit for their lifelong label, Mute. When the band shared a festival bill with lifers like Erasure, Nitzer Ebb and NON a few years ago, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill told Pitchfork, “It was all these electronic bands with this amazing history…and we were just guys with guitars and drums.”
He was being a bit hard on himself. Liars were never “just guys with guitars and drums.” Even their debut, 2001′s They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, had elements of electronic and experimental music that reached well beyond its supposed disco-punk bent, from the mesmerizing locked groove of “This Dust Makes That Mud” — a “song” that’s 30 minutes long — to the deceptively simple ESG sample in “Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris With ESG.” On 2012′s WIXIW, meanwhile, they reduced their color palette to nothing but laptops, samplers and synths. They’ve never once gone the obvious route.
As demented as the Liars discography is, they’ve still never made anything like Mess‘s first track “Mask Maker,” a head-scratcher that starts with vocalist Angus Andrew pitch-shifting nonsensical phrases like “take my pants off” and “smell my socks.” The story behind the song is simple: Andrew had a 24-hour trial version of voice manipulation software, so he decided to free-associate over a shimmering dance beat. Nothing more, nothing less.
The rest of the record maintains the same fast-and-loose mood, from the minimal trance melody that carries the brittle balladry of “Can’t Hear Well” to the trash-compactor keys that help “Vox Turned D.E.D.” elbow its way onto the dancefloor. The trio even attempts a straight-up instrumental with “Darkslide”; it’s not exactly a “banger,” but it’s easy to imagine Thom Yorke twitching alongside it while avoiding his Radiohead commitments and writing the next Atoms for Peace record.
This being a Liars album, the proceedings end on a perplexing note, with “Perpetual Village” spending nine minutes staring at the sun while fiddling with a mangled drum machine, and “Left Speaker Blown” tracing the horizon line of an ambient hook and spooky wide-open spaces. As it flickers and fades away, the musical future of Liars looks as uncertain as ever — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Father Figure
Daniel Miller only recorded one single with the Normal, an era-defining 7-inch he personally delivered to indie shops like Rough Trade right after the launch of his soon-to-be-influential label Mute. Thirty-five years and 30,000 copies later, the blood-splattered, Ballard-quoting "Warm Leatherette" remains one of the most heavily-covered B-sides in Mute's immense catalog, cutting across a wide spectrum of art-schooled acts, from Grace Jones to Nine Inch Nails to Boyd Rice. Liars have never tackled this particular track, but its vapor-trailed vocals and steam-pressed melodies are mirrored in the more sinister second half of Mess, from the groaning backdrop of "Boyzone" to the slo-mo crime scene of "Perpetual Village." Miller can also be thanked for the confidence Liars gained while recording their last LP, 2012's WIXIW. A Miller production that's more like a series of airlocked panic attacks, it doubled as a test run for the skittish textures on Mess, a place where the power trio could learn from their mistakes in the company of an icon. All of which explains why they hit the ground running — computers and keys in tow — on their new record.
The Labelmates from Long Ago
As seedy as 2010's Sisterworld was in certain stretches, Liars are no leathered-up industrial act. Nevertheless, they're one of the many bands who borrow a few cues from the wild-eyed wailing and proto-EBM production of Gobert Görl and Gabi Delgado's third D.A.F. album. You don't need to speak German to understand what these songs are about; dripping with sweat and driven by grunts, moans, sighs and cold, clammy keys, Alles Ist Gut appears to revolve around two things — sex and power. And with Krautrock's secret weapon Conny Plank, a producer who worked with everyone from Kraftwerk to Can, keeping things skeletal and steely, the LP sounds as deviant and danceable as Liars's last couple detours. In fact, if you swapped D.A.F.'s laser-guided synth lines and lean beats in for the fractured machinery of Mess, the results would feel completely natural.
"I was talking to Lou Reed the other day," Brian Eno explained in his infamous, oft-quoted 1982 interview with Musician magazine, "and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years… I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!"
The 2000 release of Kid A may have been more eventful than VU's debut — it was the first Radiohead record to reach No. 1 in its first week — but the aftershocks of its synth-heavy approach were similar in scope. In fact, they're still being felt by the countless artists who fell under the album's spell, Liars included. Some Kid A cuts stick to a familiar guitar/bass/drums framework (the steady build of "Optimistic," the devastating, string-swept balladry of "How to Disappear Completely"), but the record will always be remembered for the way it opens: with Thom Yorke's voice warped beyond recognition, declaring that everything in its right place when it clearly wasn't.
Liars have always enjoyed throwing audiences off course with divisive creative decisions, and Mess is where that fuck-all-y'all attitude is fully expressed, by a band who's finally learned how to embrace the infinite possibilities of electronic music the same way Radiohead did on Kid A. No longer terrified of technology, Liars show their stubborn knobs, dials and wires who's boss, from the way the voice-warping vocoder of "Dress Walker" dances hand-in-hand with diamond-tipped drums and snap-crackle-pop samples to the live-wire loops that propel "Darkslide" down a dimly lit tunnel with no singing in sight.
The Sample Surgeons
"I was always super into Björk," Liars frontman Angus Andrew once told SPIN. "The [album] that made me really obsessed was Vespertine, partly because she collaborated with Matmos, who made the production of the album super crispy and beautiful … I remember being blown away by their use of found and natural sounds and instruments mixed with electronics. It made me super-excited about sampling."
Maybe that's why the clicks, creaks and cuts of Mess feel like funhouse reflections of Matmos's own A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure. Captured the same year as the Frankenstein-like flourishes of Vespertine — it's as bonkers as sample-based concept albums get. But more importantly, it's eminently listenable, sourcing its high concept house and glitchy techno grooves from surgical sounds: hollow skulls, torn muscle tissue, restless respirators, sterilized bonesaws, laser-corrected corneas and swiftly sucked fat deposits. As sickening as all of that sounds on paper, it's ultimately bizarre, brilliant, and borderline danceable. Just like the quivering insects, paranoid androids and ravaged oil rigs of Mess, only … messier.
The Electroclash Expressionists
The spring-loaded dance sequences and head-rush hooks of Mess tracks "I'm No Gold," "Pro Anti Anti" and "Vox Turned D.E.D." have an alarming amount in common with the early days of electroclash. Not the superficial performance art of Peaches and Fischerspooner so much as the darker diatribes of ADULT. and the mechanized rock music of Soulwax. The latter's Nite Versions LP unfolds like a seamless DJ set, beginning with a brief Daft Punk nod ("Teachers," which name-checks guitar-centric groups like Monster Magnet and MC5 the same way the robot rockers did on their debut album Homework) and rolling right on through the teeth-rattling bass lines of "E Talking," the aptly-titled "I Love Techno," and a floor-filling DFA remix ("Another Excuse") that's as confrontational and catchy as Liars frontman Angus Andrew has been since the beginning, when Liars and disco-punk acts like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem were lumped in with the electroclash scene as well.