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Liars - They Were Wrong, So We Drowned

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Artist: Liars

Album: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned

Label: Mute

Review date: Feb. 25, 2004

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned has the jagged guitars and meandering song titles of earlier Liars records, but sounds like a different band than the one that produced last year's We No Longer Knew Who We Were. That three-song EP was tight and anthemic, and when the disco punk beats fell away to cryptic song speak, it still beamed with pop smarts that recalled a Clash 12”. They were throwing away typical song structure, but it shook your hips. Liars trade cool for cold here; much of They Were Wrong is chilling, both for originality and plain spookiness.

It's a concept album, the band says, about the witch trials of the 16th century. After assembling the basics of the first song, and arbitrarily titling it “Broken Witch,” they mistyped the phrase into a search engine as brocken witch. The results were a wealth of information about Brocken Mountain, the gathering place of witches in German folklore. This confirms something about Liars working method - songs seem forged our of flubbed riffs and incomplete phrases, worked until the mistake becomes the structure, a disciplined new sound. The song “Broken Witch” alternates a jungle/drum and bass rhythmic riff, chimes that may or may not be guitar, and low synth notes. Gradually the parts overlap, and the talk-singing turns into a chant, and it builds to rolling, evil thing. It's a jumble of parts forced into something new, and you get the sense that this batch of songs would have developed the same creepy counterpoints regardless of what they'd typed into the Internet.

The notion of witch trials is more a framework for the proceedings, guiding the sort of snippets they pick for incorporation, rather than an outline for a rock opera. The lyrics keep mentioning water and blood and the devil and crops. It's raw imagery, but hard to tie to actual drama. Samuris, teenagers, and other anachronisms show up, too. There's no sense that witches are a Crucible-like metaphor for anything contemporary. But the hysteria of the past is a good for echoing the fearful mood of our time. For such menacing music, the overall effect is oddly inviting. It sounds like the band is trying to scare themselves as much as their listeners.

A song title like “There's Always Room on the Broom” shows that this foreboding music doesn't take itself completely seriously. The track brings to mind the Sonic Youth track "Satan is Boring," and Liars appear to have the same agenda as early Sonic Youth: to balance the primal with the arty, balance violence with black humor, and find sounds that are modern and mystical. Liars uncover some godawful scraping that's indeed new, blurring the line between between guitar, percussion, and synth noise.

However, the really stunning moments on this record are built around steady drums patterns, sometimes martial, sometimes polyrhythmic, with choral harmonies floating overhead. And it's here that they're reviving the tribal sounds explored in the mid-80s by Swans, Einstuerzende Neubauten, and Savage Republic. It was music that was sometimes labeled Industrial at the time, before that genre was reduced to a caricature of mesh shirts and piercings. Maybe drum machines are what made industrial music tip over into self parody. The percussion here is very human sounding, an anchors to the noise. It makes the abrasiveness, which is nearly constant, feel natural and sublime. The two short ambient tracks don't do much- they lack vocals and they lack interesting drum parts. This is a record about voice and beat.

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is a left turn that separates Liars from the post-punk pack that's emerged from Brooklyn. It shows a band that can tap into something ancient, then stick a digital glitch on top, and have the result more frightening and dislocating than those elements could ever be alone. It's a night landscape that doesn't use any black paint. They've made an album about witches that never turns Gothic. The record closes with a waltz that lopes through a few verses, comes close to turning into a traditional song, then magically dissipates into birds chirping. You're left wondering where the pretty music went. And you're a little stunned that you've been considering it pretty.

By Ben Donnelly

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