- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Has there ever been a conceptual art project (doubling as a rock band, tripling as a Trojan horse) more confounding and successful than Liars? Or a more appropriately named band, given that the shape-shifting trio carefully erects aesthetic parameters with each new studio album, only to gleefully pulverize them, burying listeners and their misguided expectations, every time? There's so much lurking in the rubble within the band's @Discographies-stumping discography: ESG, PiL, This Heat, the Jesus and Mary Chain. And now, WIXIW, their dreamy yet vaguely disquieting sixth album, adds the crumpled form of Radiohead's Kid A.
Back in the early Dubya years, Cal Arts grad Angus Andrew dragged Los Angeles record-store clerk Aaron Hemphill out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with him, where they teamed up with a corn-fed rhythm section on their 2001 debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (perhaps not the most tasteful of titles back when lower Manhattan still stunk of smoldering drywall). At the time, Liars were editorially clumped in with both New York rock's new wave (the Strokes, Interpol, the Walkmen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Brooklyn's post-punk renaissance (the Rapture, !!!, Radio 4, LCD Soundsystem). As for the other embryonic scenes emerging back then — the ethno-wave of Animal Collective, Black Dice, and Gang Gang Dance; the Berliniamsburg electroclash scene — they'd eventually gobble up those sounds, too.
Liars ditched New York soon after, and somewhere between the pines of New Jersey and the abandoned buildings of Berlin, they churned out 2004's brusque They Were Wrong So We Drowned, which got them crucified by every music magazine out there (including an infamous "F" rating in this one). Yet by 2006's masterful Drum's Not Dead (which with each passing year feels more like the Daydream Nation of drum circles), Liars were beating Animal Collective at their own tom-heavy tribalism.
A few albums on, they've deigned to make an electronic album on their own terms, not in the sophisticated epicenter of Berlin, but rather back in L.A., land of Steve Aoki, Skrillex, and DJ Paris Hilton. Still, WIXIW is no digital version of Drum's Not Dead — substituting 2012 EDM's tranced-out breakdowns and dubstep's foreboding drops for bludgeoning toms and howls. If anything, it revels in electronic music's more purgatorial nature, much like another of the genre's standout 2012 albums, Actress' R.I.P. Loops turn in place, a drum machine tocks on and on and on like a Tell-Tale Heart, and then…you find yourself thrust into a different groove entirely. Like the palindrome of the album title itself, you move forward or backward, travel from one end to the other and back, and still you've gone nowhere.
Opener "The Exact Colour of Doubt" is a lucid dream evoking Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II at its most disembodied: gravity-free synth washes, a lullaby-like melody, muffled thumps of percussion, and the foreboding Andrew deploying his most gorgeous and reassuring Thom Yorke falsetto. Never mind that raised sword he also keeps cooing about. "Ill Valley Prodigies" feels pastoral, with birds, distant children's voices, plucked guitar, and that falsetto once again, this time "counting down the breaths until he's gone." The title track's cascading synth lines (or is that an electrified lemon?) and tom rolls (though it could be a mic'd up stack of hardcover books) are a closed system in a song whose central image is "hollow life." And while "Octagon" quickens the beat, the new layers neither raise the energy level nor alleviate the dread and tension that hangs over the song like a growing migraine. Penultimate anthem "Brats" at last embraces the beat, while also piling on Drum's Not Dead's piercing squalls of noise.
In one way, "No. 1 Against the Rush" serves as an ideal single for this album: percolating synth pop (harkening back to Mute's golden age of Depeche Mode and Yazoo) that acts as a gateway drug for unfamiliar listeners, right down to the soaring mixtape-worthy chorus of "I want you." But soon the track is all dead ends, downward spirals, and Andrew's gruesome admission that "I bloodied myself awake today." For Liars, it embodies what they do best — saying one thing and then doing another. And on WIXIW, everything is in its right place.