It seems that when discussing Liars, nobody quite knows how to describe them. Are they dance-punk? They sorta were once. Are they art-rock? It’s not clear that “art” is necessarily their intent. Are they a “noise” band? They’re far too structured to simply be identified as noise. They’re just Liars, really.
That said, it has felt since their debut album They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top that Liars know they are Liars, and thus must act as if they are Liars. That is, there’s always been a sort of self-consciousness about Liars albums that dictated the flow of the band, even as more and more concerted efforts were made to distance themselves from anything that they had done before. They Were Wrong, So We Drowned was almost painfully reactionary, admirable in that it fearlessly strayed from the (slightly) more conventional sound of the debut, but so aware of itself as to be more interesting as something to study than as an actual piece of music that people are going to truly listen to.
All of this backstory is precisely what sets Drum’s Not Dead apart from its elder brethren — if anything, the level of artsiness has actually increased since They Were Wrong…, as evidenced by the stomach-turning tactic of naming 11 of the 12 tracks after one of two “main characters” in the context of the album, but the art now sounds fairly effortless. Perhaps it truly is a product of the group’s much ballyhooed move from Big Busy Brooklyn to Bohemian Berlin (as the band’s press is so willing to point out), but it might just be due to a growing comfort within themselves as a band. Pornographic EP covers notwithstanding, it’s as if they’re not just out to shock us anymore.
So let’s go back to those two characters. It would seem that Drum’s Not Dead is an album that deals with the creative process, as the character named “Drum” is the spirit of creativity and spontaneity, while the character named “Mt. Heart Attack” is the spirit of fear and second guessing. The album opens with a song called “Be Quiet, Mt. Heart Attack!”, and it’s an invocation of sorts, a call to let creativity come forth, and let Drum free, all of it performed via an extended dissonant guitar drone and slow-paced but powerful drums that rumble in and out of the mix at will. Angus Andrew’s vocals then enter, recalling Thom Yorke at his most extended and unintelligible, and the sance has begun. What follows is a series of tracks that are not songs so much as themes, alternating between near-rock with a noisy, tribal, almost improvised feel, and slower, meditative pieces that don’t grab attention so much as allow for transition between the bursts of noise.
When the power’s out and it’s dark in the house, I will run,” sings Andrew in third track “A Visit from Drum”, a slow-burning piece whose beat is slowly developed over the course of its four-ish minutes as more and more dissonant splashes are added, never quite making the song abrasive enough to escape the label of mellow. Such apparently personal, but ultimately fairly meaningless lyrics are the norm for Drum’s Not Dead, as lyrics here appear to exist for the sake of painting emotion more than for literal analysis; just as the instruments are meant to evoke ideas rather than simply keep a beat and add melody, the lyrics become part of the instrumental palette, offering acceptance for Drum and resistance to Mt. Heart Attack, the latter exemplified by the creepy distance offered by “The Wrong Coat for You, Mt. Heart Attack”: “We regress a little more / With each step we take / These steps to your door…”
It is closing track “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” that ties the album together, through the most ear-pleasing sounds Liars have ever produced as a band. A willfully sparse arrangement and major-key melodies hint toward actual, quiet songwriting — it’s easy to think that perhaps it’s a swipe at the modern mope of folks like James Blunt or Coldplay, allowing that self-doubt can lead to pretty, though ultimately vacuous sentiment. Even so, it also plays as an ode to that which the band had resisted so vehemently in the eleven tracks previous, as the repeated, circular mantra “If you need me / I won’t run far / I can always be found” brings the album to its close. It’s a quiet acceptance of the idea that without the existence of Mt. Heart Attack, there could be no Drum, that they are two sides of the same being.
The official release of Drum’s Not Dead may or may not shed more light on the story of Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, as it will be accompanied by a DVD with no less than three different visual interpretations of the album, thus lending credence to the description of Liars’ art that labels it as deranged soundtrack music. Regardless of the visuals, however, it is clear that Liars are, just now, coming into their own musically, making music that ebbs and flows and might actually invite emotion as much as it does analysis.