When it comes to the Liars, I'm a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately. I'd heard the phrase "dance-punk" applied to their first record, smirked when their second one got an F in Spin, and when told the New York trio relocated to Berlin, guessed at similarities between the Liars and the ex-pat efforts of Bowie, Iggy Pop, or even U2.
But all of my preconceptions were almost laughably incorrect based on the band's newest release Drum's Not Dead, a concept album with an impenetrable plot and accompanied by a DVD of three album-length avant garde films.
Drum's Not Dead is unabashed "Fuck Rock Let's Art," John Cage-esque nonsense, but it's an album that is infinitely more interesting than the sum of its parts. Sure, comparisons can be drawn between Drum's Not Dead and records by the Boredoms or the Microphones—and the vocals are perhaps a little too indebted to Thom Yorke's performance on Kid A—but the album is the rare example of post-modern art that is best left uncategorized. Like a startling non-representational painting that's less fun once you put a name on it, Drum's Not Dead is haunting as hell.
Shimmering guitars—the makes, models, tunings, effects pedals, and even string gauges are listed in the liner notes in lieu of lyrics—open the record's first track, "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!," before the nominal floor toms emerge and shatter the ethereal. Almost all of Drum's Not Dead is driven by tribal rhythms that command interest even when the band's hooks are at their least inspired. The tracks interact with one another—more like symphonic movements than individual songs—in such a way that turning off the stereo seems prohibited. Some of the arrangements are modest, but like the best sonically explorative mind-fuck albums (Loveless, EVOL, Super AE) there is much to discover in every listen.
Drum's Not Dead is an album of sounds, not songs. "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack" opens with what sounds like a didgeridoo. Every guitar and vocal is rendered and re-rendered with an array of effects so that everything other than the rattling groove of the drum kits are unintelligible—but in a good way. You could conceivably form a conga-line to "A Visit From Drum," but I wouldn't recommend it. The monotone voices on "It Fit When I Was A Kid" chant something silly about battleships and outer space or whatever, but the tune is every bit as drone-y, creepy, and irresistible as the score to a John Carpenter movie.
Ever since the advent of CD-ROM technology and then bonus DVDs and now DualDiscs, artists have not been content to leave well enough alone and let their albums speak for themselves, inefficiently cramming home videos and shoddy live footage on at the end of their records. Drum's Not Dead does it right. The short films included are integral to the record: Brakhage-style super-8 films intermingle with Davey and Goliath-style claymation intercut with eccentric studio and live footage to remind you that this is a rock n' roll band and a damned fine one at that. Clearly not everyone's cup of tea, but if you find Drum's Not Dead preposterous and pretentious, watch the accompanying footage of a cartoon ice cream cone fucking a mountain or a segment which can only be described as a toothbrush bildingsroman and you'll find yourself less put off by the Liars' pomposity than seduced by it.
In all honesty, Drum's Not Dead is a curiosity (only the gorgeous closer "The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack" stands on its own as a single); every minute of the album demands patience and something resembling concentration. It won't be the best—not by a long shot—but Drum's Not Dead is certainly one of the most exciting releases this year.