From day one, following Liars‘ career trajectory has been nothing if not mystifying. Every album has conceivably been a curveball of some sort, deftly outmaneuvering any kind of expectations. Before you could pigeonhole them as an angular dance-punk act based on their debut, They Stuck Us All in a Trench and Threw a Monument On Top, they had moved on to more droning, experimental pastures and that was just the start. Despite dutifully following their career, I can genuinely say they have managed to catch me off guard, at least to some degree, on every release. The reason they get away with this sort of unpredictability without it coming across as either some premeditated attempt to stay fresh, pretentiousness or simply inconsistency is that the band themselves will be the first ones to admit that they never set out to try and buck expectations, it just happens organically. And no matter what left turn they happen to take, they still end up sounding like Liars.
Liars’ latest full-length, the electronically based WIXIW, certainly doesn’t deviate from this paradigm. From the onset of “The Exact Color of Doubt” — which opens with a warm, lush synth — it’s clear they are working from a much different palette from that which permeated their last release, the caustic Sisterworld. There have been plenty of moments of beauty on past Liars releases, but they were scattered amongst more dissonant fare. On WIXIW‘s harrowing predecessor — despite the inclusion of string arrangements — they nearly did away with beauty altogether. So it comes as a bit of surprise just how much WIXIW qualifies as pretty (“Ill Valley Prodigies” even features a finger picked acoustic guitar!). This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of conflict — this is a Liars album after all — but nearly every shard of distortion thrown at the listener is tempered with something equally as pleasing.
Liars have stated in interviews that with WIXIW, the band set out to make an electronic album but were comfortable with the idea that it might not turn out to be one. The album certainly qualifies as electronic music, but it’s electronic music clearly made through the prism of a rock band. The band understands the genre, but they write from an outsider’s perspective, and this is what makes the album such a unique listening experience. Haunting and dark, a powerful mix of live instruments and programmed sounds, still managing to slip in dashes of beauty throughout, much of the record shares a similar aesthetic to Portishead’s Third.
The album’s stellar first single “No. 1 Against the Rush” was a fair indication of how the record would end up. It’s an immersive assemblage of ping ponging synths and swirling sounds that ebb and flow in the mix. An affecting reoccurring arpeggio anchors the song, bearing a resemblance to “The Rip.” Further illustrating the band’s plan of attack this time around, the compelling title track’s woozy synths come off their axis so frequently that the song can come across like it was made to make you seasick. Not that everything here is a reinvention; the rhythmic “Flood to Flood” is one of a couple tracks that feels right at home in Liars’ catalogue, even if it does revolve around synth sounds rather than guitar. For those wishing their last release had just a little more heart, this album will mark a welcome change of pace. WIXIW can be a knotty at times, but it still marks the most personal album in Liars’ catalogue. Essentially, it’s a treasure trove that requires some time exploring to uncover the gems, and there are definite rewards for attentive listening (the album sounds especially enveloping on headphones). It may not represent the most obvious next step for the band, but it’s certainly a welcome one.