For a veteran band with deep roots in noise rock and general cacophony, Liars‘ 2012 album WIXIW was an immediate outlier with clean, delicate songs crafted from electronic tools and samples. WIXIW was bold in its artistic direction, but somewhat cautious in its execution—Liars had clearly mined interesting sounds and textures but seemed hesitant to let these new ideas off the leash. If WIXIW found Liars tip-toeing onto new grounds, Mess captures the band at a full sprint. And not only does Mess ooze with confidence, it also returns to the spastic, high-energy pace that pulsed through the band’s earlier efforts.
Things get off to a weird and almost scary start on “Mask Maker.” Angus Andrew contorts his voice into a super-villain baritone and uses the opening four lines to go from sexual to perverted to psychotic: “Take my pants off / use my socks / smell my socks / eat my face off.” If that progression weren’t unsettling enough, the music hits hard with strobe-light percussion, tense, backwards-striking synths and caustic organ melodies. The quick tempo is maintained through the first four tracks to varying effects—“I’m No Gold” has perhaps the most appealing synth loop at its foundation, but shows all of its cards by the three-minute mark and might not justify its six-minute length. “Pro Anti Anti” is the closest link to pre-WIXIW Liars albums as bellowing angular-punk vocals drone on top of heavily distorted guitars. A slow, undulating synth loop is enough to drive “Can’t Hear Well,” the first percussion-less track on the album, and also the first track with a more reserved, vulnerable Andrew on lead vocals. The tone suits him well though, “Can’t Hear Well” may not be representative of the rest of Mess, but it’s a highlight that’s delightfully similar to spacey, avant-R&B from artists such as Majical Cloudz.
Unfortunately, the back half of Mess lacks the standout moments and melodies necessary to qualify the album as a true progression over WIXIW. “Darkslide,” “Boyzone,” and “Dress Walker” aren’t stumbles or skips necessarily, they just aren’t really all that memorable. The acid-techno rhythms have been done by other artists before and Liars don’t seem to put their own stamp on the rhythms. “Left Speaker Blown,” however, is an excellent close to the album; Andrews once again takes on a molasses delivery, but this time it’s over droning synths that recall Oneohtrix Point Never’s eerie palette. The closer would hit with more force however, if it weren’t trailing the nine-minute ambient behemoth, “Perpetual Village.”
After getting their feet wet with electronic music on WIXIW, it would be natural for listeners to expect Mess to be the perfect-contact follow-up that would build on the former’s foundation. Mess doesn’t reach that level of transcendence, but it is a damn good record from one of the last decade’s most consistent and continuously innovative acts.