Liars @ Ruby Lounge, Manchester 15/06/12
Support act Vessel unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy the influx of people into the Ruby Lounge after England beat Sweden three-two. When postponed main act Liars hit the stage shortly after ten frontman Angus Andrew offered a couple of bemused and monotone celebratory chants, managing to fit three individual syllables into the word “England”.
Suited and booted, they kicked off with the first couple of tracks from new album WIXIW – the atmospheric ‘The Exact Colour of Doubt’ and the lurching ‘Octagon’. Both perfect renditions with their new emphasis of synths and electronics proving the cliché that Liars don’t try out other styles, they make other styles their own. The set leaned heavily on their fresh material, which was hardly a problem having released one of the best records thus far 2012, but just when it might have looked like they were going to play the record in full, the second drumkit came out for ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack’.
As the only track from their seminal 2006 release Drum’s Not Dead, it brought to light how essential Liars are as a live band despite putting a massive amount of thought into crafting their albums. The similarities and differences between the simultaneously played drums of usual percussionist Julian Gross and part-time percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill emphasised the primal, physical quality of the song as well as cerebral end. Not at all that the new tracks weren’t welcomed, but when the opening scream of the song kicked in the audience’s fondness for their “classic material” really showed. Liars progressions throughout their albums have worked 99% of the time, but it’s difficult to avoid having fan favourites by the time you’re on album six.
Also warmly received was Aaron’s lead vocal turn on ‘WIXIW’. I’m sure I read somewhere that during the making of WIXIW Angus entered a serious relationship while Aaron exited one. As a meditation of the psychological process of loss ‘WIXIW’ is a modest lament in terms of vocals, with a torrent of chaos bubbling under the surface in spiralling synths and anxious percussion. Aaron’s performance was both stark and emotive while encased in a disconnected iciness. It wasn’t simply “having a go” at doing lead vocals, it was a set highlight, and also a contender for the best track on the new record.
Sisterworld favourite ‘Scarecrows on a Killer Slant’ brought the clanging brutality, with the “We should nail their thoughts to the wall / Stand them in the street with a gun / And then kill them all” lyric as powerful as it ever was. And ‘Hold Hands and it will Happen Anyway’, one of the rockiest tracks from critically misunderstood second album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, was arguably the peak of the set.
Though only playing a single track from each album from their back catalogue (two from They Were Wrong, So We Drowned and none from dance-punk debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top) they’ve gathered enough in the way of variety to more than carry a set on just a handful of older tracks. More subdued cuts from WIXIW ‘Ill Valley Prodigies’ and the techno ballad ‘Who Is the Hunter’ divided the momentum, while aggressive dance number ‘Brats’ brought the ghost of the earlier material confrontationally into the present.
All the resonant warmth of new single ‘No. 1 Against the Rush’ carried flawlessly to the live setting and despite their synthetic sounds the new tracks didn’t sound flat when put alongside more elemental material like ‘Scarecrows on a Killer Slant’, ‘Hold Hands and it Will Happen Anyway’ or ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack’. The band themselves were animated in all the right ways, with Julian’s energy when he came out from behind the kit to play guitar and Angus’ flailing dances coming across like a mixture of having no awareness and complete awareness of how his body movements appeared. As a frontman he’s flawless, coming across strangely affable yet somehow menacing.
A bit of energy erupted during closer ‘Plaster Casts of Everything’ from their self-titled fourth record as a middle-class moshpit opened at the front of the stage. Though not quite up to Napalm Death standards of sternum cracking carnage, and I didn’t see anyone leave the pit carrying one of their own ears, it was a welcome and spontaneous uncoiling of the tension built-up over the previous hour-and-a-bit. And ‘Plaster Casts’, already brilliant, is infinitely more powerful when performed live.
This third time I had seen Liars I was reminded how indispensable and utterly compelling they are as a live band. Few subtleties and embellishments from their albums are lost in translation yet the music never feels anything less than physical. To say that Liars incorporate quite far-reaching and often original branches of experimental rock every song is played like it’s only three-chord punk. Smoke machines, lights and the swing music to which they emerged complemented the eerie quality of their performance, but just in terms of songs and gigs, Liars have been on a decade-long winning streak.