March 30, 2006

Like Nothing You've Ever Heard

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Generally, I disapprove of concept albums. Forcing the yoke of conceptual unity onto a rock record only distracts from what is most vital – the music. But worst of all is their deeply offensive use of the n-word. That’s right, narrative.

Music is one of the few mediums that work on a purely emotional and sensory level. It reveals its abstract forms upon the pre-intellectual registers of our brains, affecting us at our most primal and vital emotional core. The best thing about music is that it can essentially say everything without saying anything at all. While I’m not suggesting that we do away with lyrics, why any musician would strive to impose an essentially literary structure on their music is perplexing.

To clear the air, Drum’s Not Dead, the latest offering from Brooklyn trio Liars, is a concept album. What’s more, it has what might be the most inanely ridiculous concept since that one about a retarded kid playing pinball. The album stages the battle between two cosmic, metaphorical forces: on one side is Mt. Heart Attack, representing self-doubt, and on the other is Drum, standing for all that is creative and good in art and blah, blah, blah. This gripping tale is told through songs that employ some of the most embarrassing song titles in history (for example, “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack,” “The Wrong Coat for You Mt. Heart Attack”). I assume that Drum is victorious (he is, after all, “not dead”), but other than that I couldn’t say much about the diagesis of Drum’s travails.

I find it miraculous, then, that in spite of its self-diminishing premise, Drum’s Not Dead transcends any of its limitations, making it one of the most arresting albums of the year, if not the decade. The album is unprecedented, not only because of its barely classifiable sound, but because it comes from a band that, two albums ago, was entrenched in the dance punk craze. I have given this album four and half stars – almost a perfect rating – and I can barely explain why. All that I know is that Drum’s Not Dead has rooted itself at the very base of my being – this is an album that moves with a power that few have, using its sonic depth charges to burrow deep into the cathectic cores of the mind.

The first three tracks of Drum’s Not Dead are as good an opening to an album as any I’ve ever heard. Opener “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!” launches us immediately into a shimmering, reverberating hail of guitars, cascading over methodical drums. Frontman Angus Andrew has apparently perfected falsetto, as his voice floats above the roaring stream of sound like an angel’s. Third track “A Visit From Drum” would make a good soundtrack for offering up toddlers as human sacrifice to woodland deities. Towering drums vault themselves like cathedral ceilings above a guitar whose twangs intuit nothing but dread and menace. Drum has certainly arrived, and apparently he’s fucking enormous. But the afore-insulted “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack” is, oddly, the album’s gem. Beginning with a truly disturbing, incantatory wail by the group, the song erupts into a noise that can only be described as inconceivable – a metallic, grating, volcanic, and impossibly beautiful blast that might as well be the sound of the universe being torn apart.

Those three tracks set the thematic tone for the rest of the album, and the Liars dive headlong into a spinning sphere of dense, atonal drones, lacerating guitars, and percussion that throbs like war drums. It is a sound that is epically tribal, and at times suggests something deeply shamanic and pagan. There is a remarkable valence between beauty and destructiveness in Drum’s Not Dead, like a movement across poles. “To Hold You, Drum” finds something oddly pretty in its industrial sound, while its companion piece, “Hold You, Drum,” spins some of the most ominous noises since the heyday of Big Black. If there is a struggle between energy and death here, it exists in the intonation of Andrew’s voice, not his words. For the most part, what he is saying is unintelligible, but his fluctuation between a fluttering falsetto and a heavy, guttural growl is all that we need to understand what is at stake.

“The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” closing out the album, is a dramatic shift in tone from the dense atmospherics of the rest of the album, using only a delicately minimal guitar, an occasional bass drum, splashes of piano, ethereal sighs, and Andrew’s heavy, brooding vocals. The result is one of the most startlingly beautiful tracks in recent memory, a piece that is both achingly nostalgic and crushing in its sense of fatigue. If the poetics of Drum’s Not Dead had resided in its sonic atmosphere up to this point, the Liars now find it in words, as Andrews’s chant of “I can’t always be found” mixes hope, pathos, and exhaustion, repeating itself like a coda until the sublime music falls away and only his voice remains.

If Drum’s Not Dead truly succeeds as a work of art, it is on the merit of its brave experimentation. When so many bands are busy grinding their tongues between their molars, it is wonderful that the Liars took themselves so seriously. Not since The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 has experimental rock sounded so profound. It is a primal scream, a tribal heart beat, an awakening of every emotional ghost – this is music that, from beginning to end, does not relent.

And then there’s that noise on “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack,” which sounds like nothing so much as God screaming at the top of his sidereal lungs into the Carlsbad Caverns of South Dakota. Apparently the Liars were right there, seated at the back of that massive throat, holding up a microphone and recording every tremble and quake of that tremendous wail as it simultaneously destroys and creates everything in its path.

Archived article by Zach Jones