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If I had to make a shortlist of the best bands ever, Liars would probably be on it. Perfect ratios art, myth, experimentalism, talent, and persona have made this one of the most prolific bands of my formative years – perhaps not critically, but definitely in a personal sense. Until last Tuesday, I’d never seen them live. But when I heard they were playing Webster Hall I decided to put aside my hatred for this awful venue and buy tickets immediately. No way would I miss this.
That night was one of the hottest of the summer so far. I was certainly not looking forward to standing in a mass of seething Liars fans in a poorly air-conditioned concert hall while we all moshed around, but life’s about trade-offs. The first hurdle I had to get over were the opening bands. I caught about ten seconds of Bubbles, but opted to stand in front of a fan near the entrance to cool off a bit before venturing back upstairs to get in place for a show I hoped would be just the right amount of epic. This also required enduring a set from Oneohtrix Point Never, which was torture enough.
If you’ve ever looked at a photograph of Daniel Lopatin while listening to his glitchy, undulating experimental electronic collages, you’ve basically seen the equivalent of his live “show”. It was one of the most boring things I’ve ever witnessed on a stage. Granted, I am not much of a Oneohtrix fan. I like parts of his music well enough, but the stutters and wails of electronic fuzz get to me after awhile and I start wishing it was just the pretty parts. Not surprisingly, that notion climbs tenfold when you’re super hot and you’re standing around in a huge concert hall with the amps turned way up and there’s really nothing to see him doing. I’ve been to a lot of electronic shows. The best DJs and producers and beatsmiths are actually a joy to see at work, deftly twisting knobs and noodling on synths and maybe even singing or drumming. Most of the others realize they are boring to watch at work but for the sake of being able to play out employ backup dancers or projections, which is always appreciated. Even if the performer is a little stiff, usually you can at least dance to the music and ignore the fact that someone is on stage “playing” something. But none of these things apply to Daniel Lopatin. We amused ourselves with the concept that at parties he only refers to himself in the third person (as his band) and says things like “Oneohtrix Point Never changes facial expressions” or “Oneohtrix Point Never gonna sound like real songs” or “Oneohtrix Point Never playing Webster Hall again”.
People hail this guy as a genius, which I don’t understand, especially when there are far less hyped folks who go totally unnoticed and actually care if they appear completely uninteresting in a live setting. Maybe it’s the hype that makes his nonchalance seem downright smug, but either way, the impression given is that his live set doesn’t have to be engaging because he is just that brilliant, and we should want to pay money to bask in his glory. If I had paid money to see Oneohtrix I would have demanded it back. I might see Lopatin’s side project with Joel Ford (creatively titled Ford & Lopatin) but I haven’t really noticed them touring and I’m sure he doesn’t do much there either, besides what I’m doing now, which is sitting in front of a laptop pushing buttons. My hope would be that Ford is an engaging enough performer for the both of them. Meaning he would have pretty spastic and/or wearing an insane costume.
Luckily the intensity and showmanship exemplified by Liars redeemed all of this as the lush opening bars of “Exact Color of Doubt” swirled over the audience. The vibes were appropriately creepy, with a sinister Angus Andrews moaning “I’ll always be your friend/I’ll never let you down” into the mic. Julian Gross took his place behind the drums and waited patiently for the mood to steep, with well-timed bursts on an electronic hybrid kit, while Aaron Hemphill temporarily ignored his own, smaller drum set as well as his guitar, presiding instead over a collection of synths. Throughout the set he would play each in turn, sometimes sharing with Andrews. “Exact Color of Doubt” expanded into the cavernous space almost like a meditation, but it was the last quiet moment in a show so loud I could feel the floor shaking and my arm hairs vibrating. They blasted straight into “Octagon” rendered with far heavier strokes in its live setting than it is on WIXIW, the band’s sixth studio album.
Much of the material on their newest record was showcased here, but it blended seamlessly into older tracks from their previous albums. The trajectory of Liars has been notoriously hard to pin down, with each album set apart from the others by its own theme, either sonically or conceptually. WIXIW has already been labeled the band’s “electronic” album and it’s true that they’ve used it to introduce a very timely exploration of computer and synth generated sounds. But the innate weirdness, sinister sensibilities, and fearless experimentation that mark all of Liars’ releases is just as prominent, even if the finished product is one of the more reserved pieces they’ve put out to date.
If anyone was worried that the more subtle tones of the new record would inform this latest tour, that worry was shattered not only by the sheer volume radiating from the stage, but also by the energy exhibited in particular by Angus Andrews. He’s every bit the cult leader, his limbs raised fantastically above his stringy locks, never removing his black jacket despite the unrelenting heat, said jacket looking almost too small on his menacing, gangly frame. One moment he would shudder violently, the next bouncing or twirling like a mental patient gone off his meds.
While the set was definitely skewed toward the songs on WIXIW, they were offered alongside a well-curated selection from their previous records. As such, the show acted partly as revue, partly as history lesson – spanning from Liars’ emergence as dance-punk purveyors of ten years past, through art rock witchiness, percussive experimentation, forays into shoegaze, and finally the punishing, barren soundscapes of 2009’s Sisterworld. And while these selections were a treat to a longtime Liars fan like myself, the WIXIW songs were executed so well that they held their own in the cannon of favorites like “Broken Witch” “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt Heart Attack” and “Plaster Casts of Everything”. Though Andrews has said that it was unnerving to present partially formed ideas and arrangements to the band during WIXIW’s almost claustrophobic writing and recording process, none of that insecurity shows now that the album is making its live debut. It’s hard to believe a decade has passed since the release of They Threw Us In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, and indeed I feel like I’ve spent most of my adulthood in the locked groove of “This Dust Makes That Mud”. But the Liars are nothing if not uncanny for their ability to evolve and to challenge, and the show at Webster Hall was a perfect affirmation of such.
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