Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Liars -- Drum's Not Dead
Mute; 2006

Three full-length albums into a solid career, Liars has proven to be predictably unpredictable. Stay with me here. The group first burst on to the burgeoning NYC post-punk revival scene in 2001. Its debut album, They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top, firmly asserted Liars' talent with ambitious concept and execution. The next testament of the band's vision They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, arrived about two years and two bandmates later. Astonishingly bleak and delectably confrontational, the concept album (based on eerie German folk tales) snuffed many critics' interest in the group. Many couldn't stomach such a vicious assault of atonal guitar work, fractured electronics and shambling drums. "Where are the catchy rhythms?" they cried. Under closer inspection, they were merely pulsating under grimy aesthetics, along with the rest of the band's brilliant traits. Now, two years later, Liars has released its third album, Drum's Not Dead, another concept album exploring the band’s calmer, more melodic side. Drum's also drops hints that its creators may be more vulnerable to criticism and pressure than previously believed.

Drum's Not Dead (based on the fictional characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, though it rarely translates into a recognizable plot) was recorded at a government-owned radio broadcasting facility in Berlin. The studios inside have been described as custom built for many different specific sounds; in other words, an audiophile's soaked fantasy. It's peculiar, then, that Drum's sounds so startlingly normal -- like it could have been made anywhere. Repeated listens betray nothing about the studios' elaborate acoustics or specifications, just excellent sound quality. Maybe that's overly nit-picky on my part. But it feels disappointing that Liars didn’t push the limits of what incredible equipment could do, especially when the group has made ordinary studios sound like a mad scientist's lab.

The album opens with the nerve-wracking drone of "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack," a mesh of razor wire guitar lines and imposing floor toms. Singer Angus Andrew calmly emerges from the haze to utter indecipherable and possibly instructional lyrics. The mounting tension gives way to "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack," which ups the ante on furious percussion and guitar work. Things then progressively cool down; percussive elements stay in the foreground, sometimes pitter-pattering on your window and other times persistently pounding at your door. A less frenzied pace helps Liars pull off its most tuneful work. This sort of turn was hinted at on They Were Wrong, but left undeveloped until now. Molasses-paced "Drum Gets a Glimpse" and lushly embellished "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" are melodic almost to a fault, having more in common with folk weirdoes Animal Collective than Liars.

It's difficult not to perceive this shift away from hair-raising noise as Liars' reaction to the deluge of negative press They Were Wrong received. Though the band's cacophonous instincts flare up from time to time, much of Drum's feels constrained in order to be likeable. Coming from a group that scrapped its post-punk aesthetic because it was too well-liked, turning to the sweet side seems contrary to its nature. Perhaps it's actually more difficult for Liars to write for those with sensitive ears than calloused. If that was the self-enforced challenge, I suppose the group succeeded. Drum’s is just as accessible, if not more so, than Liars’ debut.

I'm still incredibly conflicted when it comes to casting judgment on Drum's Not Dead. On a superficial level, there's a lot to enjoy. Songs like "Drum and the Uncomfortable Can," "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" and "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!" demonstrate both the group’s abrasive instincts and its newfound capacity for ear-pleasing melody. At the same time, I can't help but feel disappointed the band embraced its audience's comfort zones instead of hacking them to bits. (Its members' comfort zones, on the other hand, are a different story.) Only a handful of tracks on Drum's keep me interested on a conceptual level, where both preceding albums had my rapt attention. But making bold changes in style, as Liars is wont to do, is always going to present that risk. Regardless, listeners can always count on Liars' records ready to raise eyebrows, whether through ruthless noise or soothing arrangements. With this group, that's a gamble I'm willing to take.

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