Monday, December 1, 2014

album review: 'mess' by liars (RETRO REVIEW)

And now we're coming to the part of the year where I talk about artists and albums I might have otherwise missed throughout the course of the year and just never got the chance to really discuss. The biggest reason why these reviews tend to be as late as they are is fairly simple: they've either slipped the net, fallen off my schedule, or have such lengthy, complicated discographies that it makes talking about them at length a real endeavor.

And that's before we get to a band like Liars, a LA band that has only two consistent elements: a dark, menacing, groove-driven sound, and the fact that they'll keep evolving and pushing said sound in weird directions. They're a band that's infamous for making left turns, and thus expecting any sort of consistency from them was doomed the second they dropped They Were Wrong, So We Drowned and alienated a massive chunk of their fanbase. From there, they got noisier, darker, and heavier with their krautrock-inspired Drum's Not Dead, the more spacious and brutish self-titled album, or the warped, more gothic side of Sisterworld. They then followed it with WIXIW in 2012... which I didn't really love. The choice to go for more stiff, brittle electronic-inspired rhythms just wasn't to my taste, and while it is a subtle record, the songwriting didn't really grip me either. It was also a record that eschewed some of the darkness of earlier work, which for me was a slight misstep - I like Liars when they get surreal and creepy and ominous, and while there was that brand of feeling coming from WIXIW, it was muted to the album's detriment.

So when I heard about Mess, I was intrigued, not just by the critical acclaim but by the fact that the recording was apparently very different, a lot more confident and strident. And given that Liars can make some genuinely thrilling music, I was definitely interested - what did we get here?

Honestly, a record that didn't really grip me. Liars continued their steps towards tightly syncopated rhythms and electronic rock, and with every step they've taken, it's gotten less and less interesting for me, mostly because I can so plainly trace the styles that they're emulating to their original sources and am seeing less and less of their original personality. The odd thing about this record is that I get the impression that was the intention of the band entirely - it's a mess with a purpose, an album intentionally designed to be a middle-finger to those who would start slapping down labels and critics leveling unfair expectations. Which places me in a distinctly awkward position, because on some level I completely respect what the band is doing - I just wish I liked it more.

So the best place to start with Mess would probably be the lyrics, and I've always liked Liars' brand of songwriting and frankly they just seem to be getting better with every release. There's a certain snide, uncouth bluntness to their writing that I've always liked, always willing to paint themselves and everything around them honestly, without mincing words. And considering the lyrical standards for most songs in this genre, Liars is definitely a step above. What I like about Liars' brand of lacerating commentary is how their nihilism shows both sides - conforming to the critical expectations and losing one's artistic soul, or doing whatever they please, castigating a conformist world around them and acknowledging how liberating it might be while starkly ugly in contrast. And I definitely appreciated how Liars tackled every side of this angle. 'Mask Maker' sees them shred illusions people place around themselves, and 'I'm No Gold' and 'Can't Hear Well' shows them acknowledging their own flaws while reasserting their own identity. Then you have the more outward attacking tracks - those who criticize their creative process and choices on 'Vox Tuned D.E.D.', executives that would dictate to them or seek to control on my favourite track 'Pro Anti Anti', the increasingly frustrated consumers on 'Mess On A Mission', or their closing statement on 'Left Speaker Blown', where they state the only thing that would mend their imperfections is time, and that imperfection makes for drama and art - it's what makes us human, and those who enforce arbitrary standard would be better off never making music. And Liars makes sure to show just what would happen if they did conform or allowed themselves to be paralyzed by indecision on the eerie song 'Boyzone' or the excellent song 'Dress Walker', which features one of the most telling lines on the entire record, 'It gets simple then you tire / but where does simple fit with life?' Striving to make it all fit into rigid forms sucks the light out of life, and while that light might be eerie, unkempt, or brutal, it's far preferable in the end.

Now let me stress this: lyrically, this is killer stuff, material I find incredibly compelling and if it was paired with electronic rock that had more heft or grime or was willing to go in darker, more twisted experimental directions, I'd probably be praising this album to the high heavens. But that doesn't exactly happen, instead following as a continuation to WIXIW in terms of syncopated, tightly regimented rhythms that always feel a little too underweight to really match the darkness and more aggressive content of the lyrics. I don't typically like pitch-shifted vocals, but they do set the right tone on 'Mask Maker' to open the album - but it's a shame that's the only thing that really clicks with me about that song with the choppy vocals and tech house beat. 'Can't Hear Well' goes for a similar minimalist presentation with a single sawing synth melody with only minor variations, and while there is a certain elegance to the tone, there's just so little to the track in terms of production that it doesn't really land. The single instrumental 'Darkslide' takes a gurgling beat progression and pairs it with rattling percussion and some glitchy synths that eventually tries to bring in some spacey effects, but without much of a melody behind it, it doesn't really stick with me. That lack of really interesting tunes really does hurt this album for me, because as so many of the grooves feel lacking in crunch or presence in the mix, I feel myself grasping for melodic progressions that aren't really there. There are a few places where they get close - I dug the heavy synth groove on 'Vox Tuned D.E.D.', the bleak 'I'm No Gold' took a bit to get going but with the distorted vocals, thicker mix, and eventually organ interlude kicked the gothic atmosphere into gear, 'Pro Anti Anti' pairs a borderline-industrial riff with a thin, eerie synth progression with clattering percussion that worked really well, 'Mess On A Mission' took its chiptune feel into a surprisingly snappy track that features one of the better crescendos, and 'Dress Walker' takes a robotic groove and probably one of Liars' most conventional tracks and turns into a pretty slick dance number. Hell, I liked most of the atmosphere they built on the final two tracks too.

But now it's time to get to the elephant in the room, and that is that it's very hard for me to listen through this album and not hear direct links to the more synth-heavy tracks from bands like Depeche Mode or The Cure or the later darkwave scene. And to be fair that's not a bad thing - I get the feeling Liars knows they're stepping towards that sound, and it's a good fit for them. But it's not a great one, and I'm struggling to pin down why. Maybe it's the lack of a chugging bassline beyond some thicker beats or some real snarl in the low end, or Argus Andrew's vocals which have always sounded better in his authoritative midrange over his falsetto. Or maybe it's the fact some of the songs feel a little long for the ideas they try to present, particularly on the back half, with the mix never really feeling spacious enough, instead giving us a record that feels dense yet strangely bare at points. And having heard some genuinely great experimental electronic music this year courtesy of Objekt and Arca and Flying Lotus, maybe I'm a little disappointed that Liars doesn't quite stick the landing for me.

So in the end, while Mess by Liars does get better with every listen, and the lyrics really do save it, I'm still left conflicted about how I should judge it. By the standards of darkwave - hell, by the standards of Liars' other material - it succeeds lyrically while underwhelming me instrumentally, which leaves me feeling that while this album is still good, it's probably just not for me. So with that, I'm thinking a very light 7 and a recommendation. It's not my favourite of Liars' records, but if you're interested in some intelligent, dark-edged electronic rock, you could definitely do worse.

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