Not in rivers but in floods: that’s how ‘Mess’, the seventh studio album from the colourful musical chameleons we know as Liars, attacks the senses from its outset. It’s an overwhelming experience, almost – the listener needs a tether, any handhold or hook to grip tight on, to prevent from being caught up and swept away entirely. There’s such force here, a heightened intensity of clashing electronic sounds and queasy, sea-sickened beats hardly telegraphed by the band’s previous material.
Those hearing the album’s lead track, ‘Mess On A Mission’, and receiving it as an evolution of the digital designs of the somewhat more modest ‘WIXIW’ (2012, review, pronounced “wish you”), might still be surprised by just how strongly its parent album comes on. Opening with the boisterous, confrontational ‘Mask Maker’, on which a wash of non sequiturs are lashed against fizzy keys and a (molten) bubbling bassline, it’s an album that sets out at a blistering pace, and doesn’t relent for several songs.
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‘Mess On A Mission’, from ‘Mess’ (2014)
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Says vocalist Angus Andrew: “Our last album was plagued by this doubt, but ‘Mess’ is the opposite, really. We wanted to put ‘Mask Maker’ first, as it’s a very good example of just going with your immediate instincts. When we were making ‘WIXIW’, that was our first foray into electronics and software, so we’d sit there with manuals open, on our laps, whenever we were making anything. That can be a fun process – but it’s stifling, too. It doesn’t allow for any galloping through ideas. So with ‘Mess’, we’d learned enough to start taking control of some of these instruments, and we were able to manhandle them. We could make something more immediate, and visceral.”
The band – completed by Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross – can consider their ambition achieved: ‘Mess’ is certainly visceral, and to anyone with a tolerance of heavy rhythmic elements battering down traditional melodic motifs, it’s a very quick-to-click listen, too. It’s a set that aligns them more closely with a band like Los Angeles’ HEALTH, primal percussion processed through crackling circuitry, adding greater distance between the Liars of today and the band that made 2001’s on-trend dance-punk debut, ‘They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top’. And yet, these albums at opposite ends of their makers’ current catalogue are connected – not by sound, but by spirit.
“The idea wasn’t to go back to the first album and revisit where we were at that point,” explains Andrew, “but I did acknowledge, after making ‘WIXIW’ and to some extent (2010’s) ‘Sisterworld’, that we’d got into this process of working that was very laboured. I missed what we had when we started, when Aaron and I began making music together, when we wouldn’t think about stuff too much. We made music, and moved on, and we made it for the fun of doing so. It’s cool to have concepts, but when they begin to take over from the initial impulse to create, then the fun becomes compromised. We wanted to get back to the fun with ‘Mess’.”
The band’s debut was quickly recorded, and similarly ‘Mess’ – despite its primarily electronic construction – was assembled without unnecessary dallying. And that freshness is carried in its 11 tracks, the first four of which – ahead of a moment’s pause for the slower pulse of ‘Can’t Hear Well’ – really do justice to Andrew’s intentions for this record.
“When it came to sequencing this album, I thought about what I’d usually do. I’d usually have started with a high-intensity song, but then bring it down a bit, for a breather. But this time I thought it’d be great to just pound the listener through the first half of the record. I wanted to hit that intensity and maintain it. There are more ambient, abstract songs later, but we haven’t wedged them between the higher-tempo pieces.”
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‘Scissor’, from ‘Sisterworld’ (2010)
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It’s directly after ‘Can’t Hear Well’ that ‘Mess On A Mission’ arrives, sparking the set back into fiery life before a later transition into rather more meditative music: the penultimate ‘Perpetual Village’ grinds out a mantra for close to nine minutes, wrapping the listener up in a fuzzy soundscape of transporting weirdness. ‘Mess On A Mission’ is, in the band’s words, a song that addresses the very modern phenomenon of being overwhelmed by daily choices. So connected are we that even the most mundane decision can spill into myriad consequences. And it’s a theme that infects other corners of the album – the title of ‘Pro Anti Anti’ implying a muddled protagonist dizzied by possibilities, and ‘Mask Maker’ perhaps indicative of the differences between private and public lives in the 21st century.
“The concept of being overwhelmed by choices, and that generating paranoia and uncertainty, it’s a very modern-day scenario, and something that has been present on a lot of our records,” says Andrew, “although we’ve attacked it in different ways.” He goes on to note how, while this can be a disruptive force, Liars have harnessed it for productive gains with ‘Mess’.
“With this record, it’s the first time we’ve acknowledged those issues and tried to take a spin on them that’s more positive – to utilise them in a way that moves you forward, rather than one where you’re ruminating on the negatives. It’s something where you say: ‘I am overwhelmed, and I do have this problem with anxiety and paranoia because of it, but that can be used to my advantage.’”
But doesn’t he feel that by creating such an imposing album that he’s just adding to the cacophony of confusion affecting contemporary audiences? “I think that’s an interesting point, and one for me to consider. Am I adding to the problem? Is this album a knock-on effect of that disorder?” The answer: hopefully the zest of the album carries it through any such problems. “We all agreed, like the first album, to make this album fast, and to not allow doubt to creep in. We wanted everything to be instinctual. ‘Mess On A Mission’ talks to me in that way – it’s very off the cuff, and not questioning anything that we’re doing too much.”
‘Mess’ is the third album that Liars have recorded in their current hometown of Los Angeles. But while that might provoke expectations of consolidating songwriting due to the environmental familiarity, the reality of ‘Mess’ is that it’s a great deal more cantankerous and challenging, for all of its easy ‘ins’ given the right experience, than what preceded it.
“We’ve reached a level of comfort with LA,” says Andrew. “Well, perhaps comfort is not the right word, but something like that. We’re at a place where it’s okay to start attacking our music, rather than being studious about the environment. On past records, when you’re in a new environment, I don’t know whether hesitant is really the right word, but you feel like a fly on the wall, trying to gauge what’s going on around you. With ‘Mess’, we thought: ‘Okay, we’re here, and let’s take our pants off.’”
It’s very much a product of the bustle of city life, too – something clearly evident when the openers of this set and ‘WIXIW’ are compared. “With ‘WIXIW’, we went off to write in a cabin, in the woods, and that came out in some ways in the sensitivity of that record. The first song is titled ‘The Exact Color Of Doubt’, and it’s very evocative of the doubt that was born from that environment. This one is definitely us driving down the freeway, yelling at guys.”
Although ‘Mess’ is a very different beast to ‘WIXIW’, its roots begin with 2012’s collection. On finishing touring, Andrew went into the studio to look over left-over material from the band’s sixth LP. Their label, Mute, was keen for it to be packaged and released as a sequel. But something didn’t feel right about that to Andrew.
“I went into the studio, after getting off tour, to review the work and see how I felt about the possibility of releasing it,” he says. “I wasn’t unhappy with it, but I felt the opportunity was there for us to do something more interesting, and more fun. I was looking at the older work, picked up and instrument, opened a programme, and before you knew it there was new stuff happening.
“Bands get into these cycles, and we’ve been guilty of it. You work on a record for a period of time, you tour that album for a period of time, and then you break for a while before agreeing on a date to start working on a new album. But as a creative person, that’s never really worked for me. So it was great to just start playing around with stuff, without this awareness of it having to comprise a release, or to fit into this cycle. It was much more in the vein of when we first started making music.”
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‘The Exact Color Of Doubt’, from ‘WIXIW’ (2012)
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‘Mess’ also develops the band’s appreciation of dance music tropes, something that’s been evolving since they commissioned a remix project to complement ‘Sisterworld’. “That was the first time I properly opened up to the possibility of remixes,” says Andrew of the bonus-disc collection featuring reworks from artists like Thom Yorke, Suicide’s Alan Vega, Bradford Cox and Melvins. “I asked a lot of people to do it who weren’t necessarily known for doing remixes – and I didn’t want this dancefloor result. But after doing that it opened me up to how great a dancefloor remix can be. That’s the way these things work. You set out to prove a point, and you realise that what you were trying to say isn’t actually how you feel inside.”
Which is one way of saying that ‘Mess’ can make a man dance – those feelings come through on ‘Pro Anti Anti’ and the propulsive stomp of ‘Vox Tuned D.E.D.’. The incorporation of such prominent studio electronics presents a new problem for Andrew and his colleagues, though: just how are they going to pull this music off live?
“In a conceptual way of approaching a record, I think that working strictly to being able to recreate it live would be an interesting thing to do,” he says, “but I’m not into reining in any kind of creative impulse, regardless of the realities of recreating it on tour. It’s so much more fun to go crazy and see what happens.” And then the doubt banished on record partially manifests itself in a slightly different fashion: “And then you get to the point that I’m at now, where you have to literally face the music because of it. I’m having to figure out how to deal with this music in the live setting, which is really challenging. But that’s part of the fun of it, too.”
Whatever happens on stage, it’s sure to follow in the band’s tradition of the only expectation to be to not expect anything in particular, beyond a good time, from this polymorphic combo.
“I love the idea that we’re in a position where experimenting and doing whatever we feel is interesting is what people are familiar with us for,” says the vocalist. “That allows for an incredible amount of freedom. But I’m never thinking about how we’re going to compound the listener with our next move. Should we start working on jazz, because that’s the least likely move that people would expect? If I felt like working on jazz, and if it’s what I wanted to do, I would do it.”
Given their shape-shifting previous form, it’s entirely reasonable to imagine Liars releasing their own idea of a jazz album. But not right now. 2014 is all about ‘Mess’, a record that bores its presence home with astute aggression without ever losing the narrative that connects it to what came before. It sounds exciting, it sounds new – it makes a man want to fall in love with this band all over again. Which, let’s be fair, is a rare quality indeed for any band’s seventh LP.
Their best yet? Depends on your predilection for witches or fictional characters driving the conceptual message of drums-dominated records from the mid-‘00s. What’s undeniable, though: this is one glorious mess that Liars have gotten themselves into.
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Words: Mike Diver
‘Mess’ is released on March 24th, through Mute. Find Liars online here.