Despite a long, illustrious, career — 12 years and seven albums as of their latest LP Mess — Liar don’t seem to belong anywhere, and that includes their own 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.”
To be fair, Liars were never “just guys with guitars and drums.” Even their debut album (2001′s They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top) had elements of electronic/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.” Then on 2012′s WIXIW they reduced their color palette to nothing but laptops, samplers and synths.
As demented as the Liars discography is, nothing will prepare you for Mess‘s opening gambit “Mask Maker,” a head-scratcher that starts with 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 went the free-association route 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 right onto permissive dancefloors. 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 also end on both a strong and perplexing note, with “Perpetual Village” spending nine minutes staring at the sun and 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, only this time they’re just some guys with synths and samplers who can finally breathe a little more easily.