There are worse reputations to have than being predictably unpredictable. With each successive album Liars have become the type of band that defies easy categorizations and simple genre classifications, but they’ve gone about it in a fairly natural and progressive way that feels less like a series of calculated choices and more like a continuous exploration. The band’s debut, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, was lumped in with the dance-punk revival even though it was a lot more menacing than danceable. They Were Wrong So We Drowned was the unfairly maligned sophomore album. Drums Not Dead saw the band traveling to Berlin to create its dissonant, complex concept album. 2007′s self-titled album was the back-to-basics garage rock as skronk record, and 2010′s Sisterworld was the noise-pop “L.A. as hellscape” album. Through it all the band has remained true less to a sound than an attitude: harsh, chilly, distant remove.
The group’s sixth record, WIXW, shows Liars refining and expanding that attitude, while still finding new sonic pathways to wander down and get lost in. This isn’t a joyful album, but it’s inviting and almost welcoming in ways that might surprise people who primarily associate the band with the alienating onstage antics of giant frontman Angus Andrew. The album begins with its most romantic track, “The Exact Color Of Doubt,” a billowy song that finds Andrew singing, “I’ll never let you go,” over a bed of synths. Of course, this being Liars, it gets creepy and unsettling as it progresses, but it’s still a far cry from the harsh blitzkrieg of “Plaster Casts Of Everything.” With its warm, dreamy synth tones and soft, pretty singing, it might be tempting to think this is a kinder, gentler Liars.
Luckily, that’s not the case. The second song, “Octagon,” quickly signals that dread-soaked minimalism is still the go-to reference point for these art-rock cool kids, but this time around they’ve traded banged up guitars for a coked-up, shaky-hand-on-the-effects-knob take on late ’70s and ’80s synth-pop. This is steely, skeletal, glass-table music that’s not so much designed for dancing as it’s designed for twitching in dark corners. Obvious stand-out “Brats” kicks off with a beat that wouldn’t sound totally out of place on an Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark album, but the track quickly builds to a twitchy, horror-movie soundtrack synthesizer freak-out. The rest of the album finds the band tinkering with thin textures, reverb-drenched guitar tones, sparse electronic beats, garbled samples and bursts of tinkering percussion. Songs rarely build to climaxes or cathartic moments, instead ending with dead-eyed stares and defeated murmurs.
And yet, something keeps the album from feeling like a colossal and repetitive bummer. With its found footage sound effects, murmured acoustic strumming and warbled falsetto singing, “Ill Valley Prodigies” sounds like a b-side from Radiohead’s Amnesiac, but Andrew brings his own haunting touch to the proceedings. Andrew’s singing on the album is the big surprise, as the relatively open compositions allow for his vocals to take on a greater role than ever before. Alternating between his typical deadpan speak-mumble style and a more expressive, tuneful approach, WIXW is a compelling argument for Andrew as one of post-punk’s best singers. Though the lyrics are still difficult to make out, the songs consistently match up with his vocal performance in exciting and invigorating ways. For example, “Flood To Flood” is a fairly typical Liars stomp-along chant song re-imagined as a sparse, springy bit of rumbling trip-hop.
On Drums Not Dead’s crowning moment, the moving final track “The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack”, Andrew sang, “If you need me I can always be found.” That type of emotional directness can be hard to find in the band’s cold and conceptual catalog, but that chilly remove makes the moments of accessibility even more powerful. WIXW’s closing song, “Annual Moon Words,” finds Andrew singing over a cheery, acoustic folk-pop riff about “how to say goodbye” and being “on my way down.” It’s a touching moment that suggests closure, as if Liars may be drifting away from us, but after over 10 years of constantly transforming and evolving as a band it’s hard to believe Liars are going anywhere.