The Power's Doubt: Liars Live, By John Calvert
, October 24th, 2012 06:53
After a few months touring WIXIW, Liars are turning into a magnificent, at times malignant, psyops weapon, discovers John Calvert. Live photo by Valerio Berdini
On the second floor lobby I'm pointed in the direction of a doorway. Blood red walls become a dark staircase, and eventually a dark room. An attic. Blocking the back doorway is an overspill of much taller people, beyond them clues to many more people; forests of legs, small faces glimpsed in the distance, the shape of things. They are looking at something I can't see. It's like a glow, or a hallucination. And there's no sound, just a shuffling silence. Just this ectoplasmic glow. The colour of television and migraines. The exact colour of doubt.
"A fall won't make a sound" - 'Who Is The Hunter'
Liars are between songs. The first song, a new one called 'Vox Tuned D.E.D' that I miss, and the second. But this liminal silence, this held breath, is perfectly defining of a truly insidious night, and the uncanny WIXIW. Silence is WIXIW's third man and the undertow. It's the invisible agent, and tonight a radiated malignancy out of shot, much like a strange glow seen only in the dark eyes of waiting people.
So this scenario is perfect. Because what is Liars' album of neuronic electronica but the secreted attic of their minds, a paranoiac box of trapped air where faces watch from the dark? They looked inside, Andrew told us, and they didn't trust it, didn’t like what they saw. WIXIW is that internal monologue, the proverbial memory-gospel, reprocessed by machines into some order of deceitful conspiracy. Tonight it is coming to consciousness in claustrophobia, against the scrutiny of a glaringly rapt crowd, behind whom sit people on the other side of thick glass, in the viewing gallery above. Bathed in red light they talk soundlessly. While we watch, others are watching us.
I'm staring into the flannel shirt-clad spine inches from my nose, when 'Brats' explodes into life. A couple emerge from the wall of bodies, pushing past me on their way to the bar downstairs, and so the back of the crowd shifts downwards onto the steps. Now I see everything. The panoramic width of the room, the pool of heads, and the band. Andrew presides over an L-shaped array of tech, and Gross has his eyes closed in reverie, and Hemphill, well Hemphill watches Andrew, always. Tensile in his slight and hawkish frame, he is a thing of intense cognisance, and the coiled constant to Andrew's sick abandonment. Between them exists the modern underground's greatest chemistry. And up and up they go, 'Brats'' fierce beauty transforming the floor below me into a shivering pit of strict ecstasy. And stop, that's it. For a while, anyway. It's time now for the serpentine; for WIXIW.
"I knew it well. I knew you hell" - 'Octagon'
After months touring the record, immediately apparent is the command Liars now have over the new material. And because they now have the skills to play games with the music, the unnerving ambiguity electronica afforded their sound on WIXIW is shown in even sharper relief. The songs are forever slipping from your grasp, turning to water. They quicken into sharp passages or fall away to weak remoteness or, in the case of 'No. 1 Against The Rush', gesture towards terrible and soaring codas before stopping dead, leaving an absurd vacuum. They arrive in unfamiliar forms so as to disorientate, or leave as throbs of contorted chords or in a loop of bizarre dissonance, channelling madness whereas before full blown psychosis was only an abstract threat.You are never quite comfortable. In addition, the tracks are now merged into one fluid, slithering mass, the band segueing with a line of queasy Eastern synths, or a hanging guitar note, or with the suspended echo of Andrew' pitch-mangled voice, which he then 'saves' on his voice processor and later reuses in ghoulish ways, like releasing a trapped soul, or a perpetual scream. It's a smart trick, because when you can't trust the human voice then what can you trust? The doubt is total tonight.
"I refuse to be a person" - 'Flood to Flood'
'WIXIW' rockets through the room, every bit the sonic equal to that malign cryptogram. Tonight though, the usually carnivalesque keys sooner recall, say, Philip Glass' manic organ stuff. The result being an uncanny meeting of religion and the tinny science of electronica, with the clash then supercharged by Gross' unrelenting bass drum which, in a live setting, dominates the mix.
The very deepest waters of the set, 'Flood to Flood' and 'Who Is The Hunter' make for a paralysing whole. The two tracks are grouped together on the record for good reason, so it makes sense not to then separate them live, and the plan works a treat. 'Flood to Flood', all twitchy percussion and numb obedience, is an expression of the 'absurdity of existence' as fine as any the art-rock canon. His face concealed in long hair for so long you wonder if he even has one, Andrew slurs personal growth maxims in the style of pat recitations ("Keep the weekends for the people") or details the inconsequential minutia of life ("Don't forget I like my coat on"). Still motionless (and emotionless) subtly his narration becomes increasingly homicidal ("Tie me down when I'm in seizure / Keep me home, away from people"), until finally he rejects his glorious citizenship "I refuse to be a person". I'm mesmerised by the time 'Flood to Flood' all but daydreams its way into the set. Gross hits that needling tap of a rhythm and Andrew' synths keen angelically, and up front a person raises his hand in worship, or to shield his eyes from the light, and dry-ice like dragon's breath streams from pipes above us every five minutes like clockwork.
Notes on the A/V: Tonight's unsettling stage visuals comprise of a single-take recording of a white room, through which the trio come and go, clearing out what appears to be a junk-filled practice room with a large 'L' on the back wall. As well as an unbalancing cognitive dissonance, the film establishes the illusion that what we are watching is occurring in real time, as if the band are here but also there. A Godard-ian reality-breaker reminiscent of GO4's 'Anthrax', your mind turns to thoughts of amnesic time lapses or deja vu or doppelgängers. At stages there is nobody in the room, yet the camera keeps rolling.
With this new dexterity comes also an increased capacity for inducing semi-hypnotic states, or more accurately and in the context of WIXIW - the power to seduce by sedation. Tonight you soon realise that WIXIW is not so different from Liars or They Were Wrong, It's just another form of entrancement, only here the violence is contained in potential while the methods used to get us to nirvana are opiating in nature as opposed to coercing. You could side with the Factory Floor school of thought and their drummer Gabe Gurnsey's view that "repetition is the platform for free-thinking". Or you could entertain the notion that just maybe, drone electronica is by design a force for closing your options down, for railroading minds into one prescribed corridor of thought. Live, 'Octagon’'s unflinching gaze renders perspective an impossibility. Your vision is keyhole, the rest of the room is vanishing; becoming memory. Your mind is closing. Within 30 seconds I'm a fucking snake, lost to 'Octagon’s arabic shimmer. I think that, yeah, I could quite easily cry, coursing as I am with that peculiar agitation - neither adoration or fear but something in between. The product of manipulation though it may be, this is release. I'm feeling sleepy and timeless now, watching Andrew as his hand closes into the shape of a gun. It's pointed at the audience, this 'gun', and he pulls the trigger. Then soon it's at his temple. This is a lethal lullaby. It's like i'm losing blood and Liars are telling me it's alright to sleep.
"I bloodied myself awake today" - 'No 1. Against The Rush'
Of course, in order to indoctrinate not only must there be tenderness but also abuse. In this WIXIW context the towering, vandalising non-WIXIW material takes on new meanings. 'Broken Witch', with its "We are the armies who see through the red haze of blood", now seems less like a countercultural anthem, an ode to reason and truth, and more like war propaganda; something marching soldiers might sing on the way to certain death. The general points from himself to the crowd and back again, so we're in no doubt as to who it is comprises these armies. But in the wake of the WIXIW suite it smacks of 'orders from high command' as opposed to a conspiratorial. Then there's 'We Fenced Other Gardens...' With Gross' live drums now thunderous and pressing down on the dubby bass and the copper piping noisetronica, a kind of sleepless night emerges from the ruins; part trip hop, part no wave. "Fly Fly / The devil's in your eye / Shoot shoot". And yeah, we are doomed. Meanwhile, next to the new material's whispers 'Plaster Casts Of Everything' is a screaming, fucked up madness (with glamrock undertone), while 'Scarecrows On A Killer Slant' ...well that's different. 'Scarecrows...' is about L.A., and society's many ghosts, and middle-class America's secret bloodlust. So thats another story. And, suffice to say, so incandescently hate-filled is it in comparison to anything else here, that either way it seems impervious to WIXIW's influence.
"Wish you would not come back to me / Hollow life" - 'WIXIW'
Alas, come the encore the black curse is lifted as soon as the sweet 'The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack' rises. Behind where the trio play their catalogues' only real concession to love, on the screen the other trio sit side-by-side on the floor of the now empty room, against the back wall like a kind of band of brothers, staring at the camera and out at us, as if to say a simple thank you. For the fans who have stuck with this band over the years it's a touching image, and the song's sentiment is perhaps seems now in address to these fans. "If you need me / I can always be found," Andrew sings "I will stay by your side" In the age of stupidity and lies, Liars are a port in the storm. True love is a thing of free will.