A decade, distance, synths, and a whole lot of bass: Liars live bring about a minor musical epiphany.
I got my initial exposure to Liars a decade ago, when they were a New York City band opening up for Sonic Youth. I very clearly remember being blown away by the then-four-piece ball of energy steeped in post-punk at a time when it starting to seep out of every crevice of The Big Apple. As a wide-eyed teen that had just started living in the UK a year before and was back for a visit, they stole the show for me and I was hooked. I saw them a few times over the next few years and then went off them for some time after the initial excitement of ‘Drums Not Dead’ wore off in late 2006. This departure was as much due to my own musical tastes aggressively branching out into dance music and the electronic avant-garde as well as not feeling the same instantaneous connection with 2007’s ‘Liars’ and 2010’s ‘Sisterworld’ that I’d had with their previous releases.
All of this changed when I heard the first single off of ‘WIXIW’ and the album has remained firmly planted at the top of my listening pile since. Textural, eloquent, collaborative, and haunting as anything, ‘WIXIW’ is an album made for hedonistic sunrises and staring out of windows in constant transit. It exudes the cool confidence of a band that’s grown up and learnt how to write well together while opening up both emotionally and musically. So, ten years later and a mere four blocks away from where Liars initially stole my teenage heart, I braved the current heatwave to give them another, if slightly sweaty and dazed, go.
In perhaps a further bid to distance the audience from their old sound and steep the venue in woozy ambiance, Oneohtrix Point Never is on main opener duties after local synth-poppers, Bubbles. His new set contains less of the purgatorial meanderings of previous years that, beautiful as they were, never peaked nor troughed but rather set unwavering tones and moods. Tonight Lopatin focuses on bringing ‘Replica’ to life with intensified dynamics, which translate to an engaging live show. Up is a particular highpoint; its crisp percussion unfurls into the expanse of Webster Hall and remains, elongated, until the vocal samples and synths eventually match and overtake.
The lingering stoicism and restraint Lopatin demonstrates during his performance dissipates as Liars come on-stage and the atmospheric pads of ‘WIXIW’ opener The Exact Colour Of Doubt shimmer and take hold. Frontman Angus Andrew, looking far less terrifying and sleeker than normal, sings softly and tenderly as multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross (in a fetching Miami Vice get-up) layer sounds and sparse electronic drums nebulously until Hemphill’s upwardly melodic bass guitar kicks in and a feeling of forward motion is finally created. The live group has been stripped back to the core trio and, although realising a lot of the guitars are triggered samples is a bit jarring initially, it works out very well for them.
Next up is the second track off of ‘WIXIW’; the vaguely Basic Channel-like Octogan with its dub techno stabs and Levon Vincent-esque bass line accompanied by a slightly more menacing and incomprehensible vocal from Andrew. By this time I am starting to wonder if the band will be performing the album track-by-track and if they’ve completely hung up their old percussive ferocity in favour of their new bass-driven direction. A gutteral howl from Andrew immediately shatters all this as the band goes straight into ‘Drums Not Dead’s’ Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack with multiple tom-toms and a sonic assault of percussion from everyone. We are finally treated to the madman giant we remember Angus Andrew to be as he throws himself about the stage in possessed, chaotic fury. Nope, drums are definitely not dead, and thank fuck for that. A moshpit instantly forms in the crowd that remains an amusing barometer of Liars’ musical timeline throughout the rest of the show. ‘WIXIW’ track? No moshpit. Older material? Get out or get destroyed. However, there is one new tune that does get the nostalgic crowd moving, and it remains my high-point of the show. All three members man the drum machines for the driving and dancey Brats that thumps with the same intensity of their previous material while still remaining definitively ‘WIXIW.’
My only, and fairly negligible, criticism comes as the arpeggiated harmonics of ‘WIXIW’ single No.1 Against The Rush ring out and I am shocked to see Gross leave his drumkit and get on bass guitar duties. However straightforward the drums may be in comparison to the rest of the song, I find myself wanting to hear them played live as the samples fall slightly flat. Gross does finally return to his kit after the breakdown, and I still thoroughly enjoy what is one of the most intriguing and captivating singles of the year. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately and this song in particular reeks of the motorways that define the American West, and particularly Southern California. Within the sweatbox air of the venue I can almost feel the sun mingling with the dry desert air and salt of the Pacific Ocean.
The next hour or so passes quickly as Liars take us through most of their new album, but give us a few more tracks from their early years as well. They end with 2004’s visceral Broken Witch and get joined by some flailing moshers on-stage in a last bid of insanity that goes over very well even well after the temperature surpasses sauna level. They are a far cry from the band that originally blew my mind as a noisy, avant-punk four-piece, but still blaze through that part of their back-catalogue as if on fire and manage to tastefully join the dots between their past and present within the context of the set. I did massively favour the newer material over the old, and leave the show not entirely sure if this was due to a decade of growing up and growing further apart (but never away) from my rock-based roots. Maybe the band themselves had done the same thing. Had we both come full circle and yet so far in this mini-radius of streets between Irving Plaza and Webster Hall? Honestly I didn’t dwell on it for long, and therein lies the subtle wisdom and genius of why ‘WIXIW’ works. Perhaps getting older is really about embracing the ambiguity and doubt that’s always bubbling under, yet still allowing the odd maniacal outburst to remind us all not to take any of it too seriously.