Liars - Mess

On their 7th studio record Mess, Liars craft a dark dance epic that descends into madness.

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If Liars set out to create a dance album with Mess, they succeeded—that is, if you’re meant to dance in a dimly lit haunted warehouse. The band is known for their innovation and sheer unpredictability over their decade and a half-long career, and this record forges some new trails for them while holding on to their roots. Compared with their last effort, the sparse and electronic (almost Radiohead-esque) WIXIW, this record is much heavier, trudging into firmly industrial territory. In fact, it’s almost like its evil twin let loose. Right from the start, this record sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a zombie runway show or a strobe-heavy dark disco party. There’s something very sinister under the surface, though, something that manifests more and more as the record advances.

The first half of the record is very dance-forward. It remains grounded through its methodical beats and drony synths that sound so calculated and exacting, almost too much so. Like much good electronic music, it finds its strength by building on repetition and carefully crafted formulas. Most tracks seem to start with an established beat and some kind of drony synth lead. As the loops go on, more synth layers are added until the beat drops and everything seems to explode. “I’m No Gold” and “Pro Anti Anti” do this exceptionally well. The band also excels at build and decay in this record—creating layers of sound building to a climax and then decaying into quiet. Their compositions here almost always evoke a sense of uneasiness and evil that seems out of place. “Can’t Hear Well” and “Mess on a Mission” provide the starkly contrasting midpoints of the record. “Can’t Hear Well” is the only semblance of heartfelt emotion in a sea of heavy dullness while “Mess on a Mission” is completely breezy and danceable. They’re the tip of the iceberg—the rest of the record declines rapidly.

Of course, this is not a decline in quality necessarily. The last half of the record represents a downward spiral into madness, musically and thematically. Starting at “Boyzone,” the beats aren’t so clear-cut anymore. The songs’ dark edges intensify, but sonically, they start to decay into drudgery and dullness. Eventually, the beats disappear and we’re left with peculiar synth dirges and dissonant sound effects. Even the vocals start to sound like they’re more and more muffled. There’s not that much to grasp onto by this point, and it was my first reaction to think it was boring. But by delving deeper into the feelings conveyed by the music, I found that they’re overwhelmingly uneasy. Because it conveys this feeling, I was left a little underwhelmed. But artistically, this could be seen as a success. Looking closely, the songs narrate the speaker’s disillusionment with himself and the world, the music matching this decline.

The lyrics of this record focus on dark and self-deprecating themes, and are often oddly phrased, almost poetic at times. Even in the first half of the record, we start to see these themes come into play. The narrator seems pessimistic but earnest at the beginning, confessing “I always wondered how/to rid myself of doubt” (from “Vox Tuned D.E.D.”). Continuing with these themes and weird phrasing, one song later we hear, “Time that you clear out my clothes and my world/I’m insane” (from “I’m No Gold”). What this actually means is puzzling, but there’s a sense that he’s starting to lose hope. In “Boyzone,” the lost hope is a concrete ideal, as he mutters, “We found a place to die/It sound by name it calls me.” And at the last track “Speakers Blown,” his sign of defeat is this: “I gave up captured, without force, freely.” Hearing his slow descent into complete darkness is terrifying.

The titles of the songs, though they don’t play into the thematic content often, take on a meaning of their own. It’s interesting that the titles often refer to noise and its consequences, especially this being a dance record. From “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” to “Can’t Hear Well” to “Left Speaker Blown,” they evoke the dance floor as a dark and sinister place. And for this reason, among so many others, this record is more than the sum of its parts. Liars take us on a depressingly eerie journey, and it’s a thrill from start to finish.

“I’ve heard the wild world is wicked and the modern one is out for blood”

1. Mask Maker
The record opens with a robotic voice muttering, “Take my pants off, smell my socks,” like the start of a peculiar love song. Grounded and symmetrical crisp beats come in and build very on each other until a sonic breakdown about a minute and a half in. Starting back up, Andrew’s vocals come in more prominently and almost blend in with the track. It really sets the tone for the rest of the record, but at times it almost feels 20 bpm too slow. This proves to be disorienting, but that seems to be the effect that they want to achieve with the record as a whole.8.0
2. Vox Tuned D.E.D.
A nice lead in from “Mask Maker,” this track matches the previous tempo with drony beats and layered synth accents. Andrew’s baritone vocals really match the bass-heavy atmosphere, and he shows his range in the chorus as he soars to the higher register. At times, the slower beats drag on, but the lyrics redeem it. “They say I’m not a teacher/I know the reasons why,” are the most prominent of the track. And luckily, the beat picks up by the end.8.5
3. I’m No Gold
This track proves the talent Liars has in creating musical builds. A two note synth lead loops over a progressively building percussion. A minute it, the beat drops in a completely satisfying way. In an instant, the sound goes big, morphing into a cacophony of synthesizers and vocals. They play with volume, cycling through crescendos and decrescendos at random intervals. This is the most chiptune-sounding track, layered well with dronier synth lines. Six minutes is the perfect amount of stewing for this fantastic track.9.0
4. Pro Anti Anti
This one is big on synth modulations. They reverberate through the atmosphere over an atypical beat pattern while slowly building. Like the last track, the opening builds up to a beat drop, but this one is far less dramatic. Andrew’s vocals are more monotonous than before, so they drag on in an almost boring way. The last half is redeeming though. A sparkling synth line that’s almost harp-sounding shines through as the rest of the noise dissolves and grows again. It fits the formula they’ve set, but it’s almost too formulaic.7.8
5. Can’t Hear Well
After being weighed down (in a good way) by the heavy synth beats of previous songs, this stripped-down track lets us take a breath. Different from the rest, there is no backing beat at all. Instead, a wonderfully endearing chord progression is created by sparse repeated synths. Eventually, the vocals come in, muffled and surprisingly reflective. It’s very reminiscent of their older stuff, and just as heartfelt. This is definitely a special one, especially as a midpoint of sorts for the record.10.0
6. Mess on a Mission
A simple beat and various beepy synths ground this rhythmic number amidst the intricate layered vocals. In fact, the vocals play well with contrasts—his baritone muttering, “Fact is fact and fiction’s fiction,” layers lushly with the repeated falsetto line, “A mess on a mission.” They interlock just like a rhyme. Though it still evokes some dark themes, this song’s almost breezy demeanor make it the life of the party.8.0
7. Darkslide
The band has proved that they’re very good at composing interesting beats, but, ironically, the first completely instrumental track on the record falls flat. Two beats are consistently layered throughout the number: one moist-sounding beat and one that’s haunting and skittering. While the textures are interesting, the track doesn’t really go anywhere.7.0
8. Boyzone
A simple beat evolves into something very peculiar on this track, accented by a hypnotizing synth line reverberating through the atmosphere. The vocals, usually deep and firmly sung, are subtly moaned. The whole track feels like you’re trudging through molasses, and I’m not sure how it makes me feel. A little uneasy, that’s for sure. And prone to some chills as well.7.9
9. Dress Walker
By now, it’s becoming clear that the record is quickly descending into creepy vibes. Subtle beats and vocoded vocals sound eerily synthesized, and they sound more sparse and lifeless than any track before. Even when non-processed vocals join in at the middle, their dullness matches the depressingly dark tone of the rest of the track. Unfortunately, there’s not much to grab on to here.7.5
10. Perpetual Village
Though this track is the longest on the record, at nine minutes, it easily feels two times longer. The pace is so slow, trudging along under 80 bpm at least. The synth tones are muddled to oblivion, a boring dirge that mimics the slow descent into madness the record is heading towards. “Endlessly monotony dulls all alternatives/life is long, way too long,” marks the depressing first verse of the track and matches the tone of the track almost uncannily well. Though it seems like it may be planned out, this decline makes this track hard to listen to.6.8
11. Left Speaker Blown
The final track of the record is a stripped down ballad like “Can’t Hear Well,” but they’ve fully solidified their descent into the darkest depths possible. It’s melodic at times, but it decays into dissonant background noise. Eventually, it fades to quiet and fills the rest of the track, about two minutes, with nature-esque sound effects and radio intercom vocals. For being such a dance-forward record, it ends on a surprisingly deadbeat note.7.0
Written by Hailey Simpson
Now attending college at UC Berkeley, Hailey's main passions in life are attending every concert she possibly can while keeping up with her studies, drinking copious amounts of Philz Coffee, and spinning tunes on her college radio station KALX.

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