The turn of the century saw an explosion of underground musical activity over in the states( especially in New York, and Brooklyn in particular) The bands that were part of this supernova also seemed to defy expectations by shape shifting at a rapid rate (think Black Dice, Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance), and it was almost impossible to predict what an outfit’s next album or EP would sound like. The only thing certain is that it would be daring and that it would have journalists throw terms such as ‘cutting edge’ around with reckless abandon. It was an exciting time for underground music with new, young bands delivering gold standard work.
These bands have matured now and are, one can say, old hands and part of the avant-establishment. Some have become almost pop, such as Animal Collective, and enjoy something that could almost be described as mainstream success. Others, such as Black Dice, have streamlined their sound into something that definitely isn’t pop (although maybe it is by their standards), with their latest album Mr Impossible sounding very succinct and direct, even though it’s still clearly the product of a very wayward and radical combo. Liars fall somewhere between these two, never becoming as potentially commercial as Animal Collective, though also reigning in any goofball elements that Black Dice still seem happy to flaunt.Liars are also one of the American bands from the last decade or so who have seemed able to wrong foot their audience whilst, at the same time, delivered a consistent sound that was immediately identifiable; a contradiction, but an accurate description. From the punk funk beginnings of They Threw us all in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, through the dank and witchy They Were Wrong so we Drowned and the acrid, haunting This Heat-influenced Drums Not Dead, and onto the Morricone-nuzzling Sisterworld, Liars have always been one of the most consistent players from this American ‘scene’.
And so we come to their new album WIXIW. What strikes you about this work on first listen is how heavily and self-consciously electronic it sounds. It’s like a Liars album except with lotsa synth sounds on it. This may sound glib at first but there just seems to be something tacked on about this latest ‘twist’ in their sound. This isn’t to say it’s a bad album, it isn’t. However, it isn’t a great one either, and there is something painfully dated about certain elements that hark back to the heady days when people would wonder at the crossing over of indie/rock/(insert label) and ambient techno. The days when guitar bands were queueing up to let Richard James remix one of their songs and Seefeel sounded like the freshest thing on earth. This was a long time ago, the early 90s in fact, and there is something quite baffling about this sound resurfacing today; especially on a Liars album.The album starts quite well, with new agey (don’t worry) synth pads washing over the familiar vocal stylings, drum glitches and click clack percussion that sounds like a take on the pat a cake, pat a cake children’s rhyme. It’s expansive and gentle but is an interesting opener. However, it descends into the 90s sound mentioned previously with “Octagon,” and this continues on tracks such as “A Ring On Every Finger,” “Brats,” “Who Is the Hunter,” as well as with the title track. “Brats” is even reminiscent of Leftfield and Underworld; and no, these comparisons are not intended as a compliment, unfortunately. The first single released from the album, “No1 Against the Rush,” is a synth heavy post-punk number that has hints of Human League and Gary Numan to it; and even stronger hints of “A Forest” by The Cure. This is an agreeable track and a grower, but again it’s perplexing why they would go for the 80s retro gambit at this stage of their career; especially considering that it’s quite passé in itself by this point in time.
“His and Mine Sensations” and “Flood to Flood” are improvements, bringing to mind great Liars moments from the past, but again one can’t help wishing for these tracks to have had more substance to their production. There is no doubt that more texture has entered the fray with these songs; “Flood to Flood”‘s drums and synth refrain give it a 21st century native American rain dance feel to it and “His and Mine Sensations” is simply a great Liars track. They say goodbye with a track that’s like a lite version of “Proud Evolution,” or a cleaned up outtake from Drums Not Dead, which kind of says it all really.