When news broke of the new album from the Liars’ camp, it was cryptic, to say the least. The album’s title, WIXIW, seemed like some sort of heiroglyphic mess, and the video trailer featured time-lapse footage of a banana rotting and microphones pointed at a bowl of Rice Krispies. But hey, this is the band that put out a concept album about a drum fighting a mountain, so weird is to be expected (or better yet, embraced). The key here, though, is the secretive, mystic nature of their work. Where other Liars albums obscured their truth in gritty, scowling dance-punk or walls of guitar noise, WIXIW sinks into a bubbling electronic groove and entrances listeners to a point of intense soul-searching.
Though they may have changed up their musical tools (focusing intently on synths and electronics), this is undeniably still a Liars album. The arrangements remain sparse, impassioned, and at times eerie. Angus Andrew’s falsetto, backed by the rich bass and slippery synths, sounds remarkably akin to Thom Yorke, but to lump this in as a Kid A sound-alike would be a disservice to its riveting self-inspection. Tracks like opener “The Exact Colour of Doubt” don’t come around too often: the music angelic while the lyrics frankly discuss dangerous emotions. “I’ll always be afraid/ I’ll never let you down,” Andrew croons over washes of Alpen synths, low-slung drums, and clusters of reverbed guitar notes. Though every component screams introspective crawl, there’s a life to the track thanks to scuffling handclaps and splashy bass. The airy “Ill Valley Prodigies” similarly evokes Yorke in the falsetto, though the minor acoustic picking and unearthly field recording behind him are Liars at the height of their evocative powers.
Other tracks, though, dive completely into the intensity head-first, thriving in their manic energy. In “A Ring On Every Finger”, a track tailor-made for high quality headphones, a minute sample of Andrew’s “uh” pingpongs between the headphones while electronics squiggle and synths build slowly in the background. Eventually, everything drops out of the mix save a buzz and a few scattered clacks, the anticipation for the groove’s return building as each drone reaches a crest. The interlocking synth grooves of “Octagon” drive at full-speed, the bubbling bass tones creating an anxiety fueled by Andrew’s admission, “I always knew you were right.” A stuttered sample of a manic laugh and some detuned synth stabs propel the dark energy even further. Few bands, if any, create tension as well as Liars.
“Who is the Hunter” opens with Andrew’s falsetto ringing out over a lone bass, the track building layer by layer, developing a straight-ahead fidget. “I never stood too long/ It won’t do anyone to watch that river rise,” Andrew languishes over a flowing, echoing marimba-like melody and a handful of synthetic layers. The melody’s coldness and propulsive energy evoke the unstoppable water, and the cruising strings that close out the track have that epic, downcast soundtrack feel that made “Scissor” (off of their last album, Sisterworld) so hauntingly memorable.
While some of Liars’ albums work off of an explicit concept or theme (Drum’s Not Dead used the aforementioned epic if surreal percussion vs. nature concept, and They Were Wrong So We Drowned was preceded by a good deal of time in the New Jersey woods studying witch trials and folklore), each album has its own distinct feel while still sounding like a Liars album. Any band without Liars’ intense knowledge of their own sound would take a song like “His and Mine Sensations” straight into the realm of Radiohead fan-boy wooziness, yet here it’s a new layer in the Liars canon. The wordless sampled vocal harmonies, cluttered synth warps, and broken outro could only be Liars, but this time their new world pushes the edge of electronic insanity.
The biggest anomaly on the disc is “Brats”, which recalls the group’s old dance-punk insistence. The drums slither between techno synths, and Andrew’s distorted vocals sound ready for some sort of grungy dance floor, a modernized club-ready take on something like “There’s Always Room on the Broom”. The fact that that song came out eight or so years ago (on their stellar sophomore record They Threw Wrong, So We Drowned) surely isn’t lost on anyone, least of all these constantly exploring, experimenting musicians. No matter how far into the ether they push, no matter what new form their music takes, there is a core Liars sound, and they’ve never sounded more aware of that or as ready to take on the challenge of reaching into that center. What they find there is pure power, an album that glistens and gleams, thrumming with life despite a massive dose of tension.