When they debuted in 2001 with They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, the Liars were placed in that same strident, New York City-centric incubator that spat out Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio and the Rapture. But while Trench was frazzled and kicky art-punk served straight up, the Liars went radical and experimental for 2003's They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, and indicated loudly and weirdly their wish to be unclassifiable.
Plenty of listeners (and critics) heeded that signal, and dismissed the Liars' music as incoherent. But to dismiss the trio now means to miss out on Drum's Not Dead. With their third album, the Liars are finally fueled on the authentic, elusive muse they were struggling to find on their earlier recordings. Dark, graceful and unforgivingly unique, it might be the best record by a bunch of intelligent white stoners since the Verve's A Northern Soul in 1995 or Radiohead's Kid A in 2000.
"I'm out of context," Liars frontman Angus Andrew says by way of introduction, on the phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. "I like being out of my element, in strange places where I'm an outsider and people leave me alone. I work best that way."
Andrew is certainly out of context in Berlin, where he now lives and where Drum's Not Dead which includes a DVD featuring films made by members of the band was recorded last year. (Bandmates Julian Gross and Aaron Hemphill live in Los Angeles.) "Finding Berlin was important for me," he says. "It's a place where I could lose a sense of consciousness, where I could become more primal and direct with the music. In Berlin, you can survey the carcass of history. There are a lot of people doing creative things, a lot of people hanging out. It's not oppressive, or a pressure-cooker like New York."
Drum's Not Dead is a concept album following the trajectory of two characters, Drum and Mt. Heart Attack. But forget about all of that, because the album's storyline isn't essential to grasping its central power. It's an examination of the human soul with the most primal of tools: Andrew's drowsy, world-weary vocals, layers of strangely pleasant (for the Liars, anyway) atmospheres, and plenty of the churning, hypnotic drumming that's become a group trademark.
The Liars approach their live show with ritualistic glee, rebuilding the experiments of their albums into volatile, unpredictable events. Andrew unleashes alien screams and slithers like a reptile through gaps in the monitors; his long limbs often lurch forward, like they mean to throw the rest of him right at the crowd. This is drastically different from his charming, articulate, downright sweet phone demeanor, where his voice betrays only a hint of the accent he acquired while growing up in the Philippines and Australia. He's humble but proud of how the band has succeeded on its own terms.
Andrew describes being back in the United States as disorienting, particularly as part of a tour, because everywhere you eat and sleep looks exactly the same. But in typical Liars fashion he qualifies that bemusement with a hint of borderline crazy: "I have no idea where I am most of the time ... except maybe on the precipice of apocalypse."
Monday, June 19, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Apes.Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org