Thursday, 19 February 2009

Drum's Not Dead - Liars

February 20th marks the third anniversary of the release of Drum's Not Dead by Liars. Slowly but surely it is becoming an increasingly watershed release, with more and more acts adapting their use of structure and synthetic texture. In 2001 this wouldn't have seemed plausible, as a group of four Brooklyn hipsters (including one Antipodian stowaway) release their critically acclaimed, little promoted debut record They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top that pushes them to the fore of the post-punk revival along with peers such as TV on the Radio, The Rapture, Liquid Liquid, Yeah Yeah Yeahs etcetera. Deciding that this sound, this scene was not for them they disband, only for frontman Angus Andrew and guitarist Aaron Hemphill to reunite the band with friend Julian Gross on drums. Their first release as a trio was Atheists, Reconsider, a split EP with Oneida which found them experimenting with sound collage and musique concrete. They then moved to the wilderness of the woods in upstate New York to record their second album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. In late 2004 they move again, this time to Berlin to begin work on their third album.

Drum's Not Dead is a beautiful, austere record that is full of life, hope and sensitivity. At its heart lies beauty and fragility. In the layered guitars, ambient drones and falsetto vocals, amongst the atonal and percussive scree Liars have created an abundant sensory world. Their previous work had eschewed the notion of beauty, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned in particular concentrates on the brutality and visceral nature of generic fairy tales. The end result is a poetic and allusive album that is at once pictorial and fragmentary, elegiac and jagged. It’s ethereal majesty transcends the manifest world, yet the tribalistic drumming which dominates the record is a device that means they remain rooted in the uncertainties of this flaccid decade.

Drum's Not Dead opener "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!" commences with an arabesque and fractured wave of sampled guitar, which is fluid yet taut, suspending the melody. Angus Andrew's flyaway vocal sits between the layers of sound, seraphic and entranced. The melody is unmoving, yet when it ascends a key you feel swept up and completely enveloped in the sound. At the timbre's breaking point the melody is disrupted as it segues into the group yells that open track two "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack". Employing an electrified drum kit to create a primal, hedonistic, industrial rush the song is reminiscent of This Heat's mechanised freakouts but also recalls a raft of earlier experimental works - from The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows" to the motorik of Can, Faust and Neu! through to the caustic dynamics of Aphex Twin. The last gasp of the vocals and the clattering of drumsticks harks the beginning of third track "A Visit From Drum", showcasing the two kit setup they were utilising. Slower and more atmospheric, it's hypnotic rhythm and gently cadenced vocals lull the listener, slowly dragging you into its cerebral heartland.

If the opening triumvirate is the clarion call for the album, perfectly setting the tone, then the remainder of the album provides flashes of clarity, as if they are somehow trying to catalogue ephemera, or the drift of memory. The treatment of sound - scratched strings, broken glass, random piano stabs interspersed with militaristic drumming - is a key and constant component of the sound architecture throughout the album. The woozy and unhinged delayed guitar that starts "Drum Gets a Glimpse" is slowly consumed by washes of percussion, found sound and reveals how dense the arrangement of the songs is.

Drum's Not Dead is wonderfully sequenced, building up tension before letting it spill out at the seams, culminating in the somnabulant and eerie "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" which is a simple and moving ballad, structured around a simple guitar motif, lending weight to the simple sentiments of the lyrics. The only song that feels like an intrusion into the carefully composed edifice is the appropriatley titled "It Fit When I Was a Kid" which initially sounds like a renegade from They Were Wrong with its insistent tribal beat, before morphing into something much darker and atmospheric as Eno-style synths take over.

The album was recorded in Planet Roc in Berlin, a studio designed by Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich. It is a labyrinthine structure, and much like the resulting work itself is full of lost avenues and compartments. This offered them different atmospheric nuances and sonic possibilities that they capitalised on. There is a sense of temporal and geographical dislocation at work in the early part of Liars output, as they shift around the globe finding new reference points. Much like David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop before them they tap into the creative atmosphere of Berlin.

With their second album Liars had already expounded the idea of a story or cycle album, with the thematic conceit drawing heavily on Middle European witch folklore (particularly Walpurgisnacht) and non-fictional accounts of witch trials. Considered by many to be an artistic left-turn, it is a bold and atmospheric piece of work, its paean to paganism the sound of those drunk on the sun. Symbolism and metaphor are equally employed on Liars’ third album. Drum’s Not Dead concerns itself with the universal battle between an artist’s insecurity and assertiveness. This is established by two characters - Mt. Heart Attack is pessimistic and apprehensive, while Drum is instinctive and self-assured. While Mt. Heart Attack glories in an acceptance of diffidence, a notion that could be given credence if the Large Hadron Collider proves there is no grand plan to the universe, Drum rails against this defeatism with authoritative valour. This battle is characterised on the album's touching stone "Drum Gets a Glimpse". Eventually Drum wins, a victory that symbolises the triumph of their intuitive creative processes.

In keeping with the record’s Germanic influences there is a strong Brechtian impulse on the record, particularly in the sleeve notes. Instead of a lyric sheet, the make and model of the guitars used, string gauges, tunings, effects utilised, diagrams of the modifications made to drum kits (based on Chris Cutler’s electrified kit with the kit being amplified and then run through various effects before then being routed to a mixer to create multi layered drones) are all displayed. Brecht propounded the idea of verfremdungseffeckt, the idea of distancing or alienating the audience from their emotional responses to the action before them - that art should not serve as an escape hatch but as a mirror. By deploying this technique in the sleeve notes (as well as assisting any wannabe sound manipulators) they draw attention to the fact that all recorded music is an illusion, the end result of physical constructs.

The album is not perfunctory – too many albums are made today that tick boxes, that promote no emotive or critical response. It is also a question of access; there is a saturation of music with so many bands to choose from. If somebody recommends a band you can check their My Space and have access to their whole discography on Spotify almost instantaneously. It has changed our listening habits, so that if the music is not immediate it is discounted. The album has been dismembered, disassociated - why buy a whole album when you can listen to teasers and download the ones you really like? A lot of this is down to hype and positioning on the part of the labels and mechanisms of promotion associated with the music industry.
Drum’s Not Dead forces you to re-engage with the art of the album. It is not a collection of songs but a seamless whole that ebbs, flows and gloriously crystallises emotion. Drum's Not Dead may be read as a study of interior space and how to politicise and enervate the personal, but more than that it means that audience cannot be complacent, showing that modern music can be artful and still exude a boundless unbridled ecstasy. Therein lays the album’s strength and Liars’ victory.

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