Maybe it's all of the sci-fi I've been reading over spring break, but Sisterworld, the title for Liars's fifth album, calls to mind some kind of parallel universe—the sort where everything we take for granted is completely inverted, yin is yang, male is female, and the L.A. rock scene celebrates inspired art-punk weirdness instead of churning out slicked-up radio filler. Truth be told, I'm not even sure if Liars could top the charts in that reality, since alienation and abrasion have always been a crucial part of their shtick. But after hearing a track like the riff-driven "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant" and the ambling, groovy "Proud Evolution," the thought becomes slightly less preposterous. Especially when compared to the abstractions of Drum's Not Dead or the relentlessly noisy Liars, there's no denying that the band has released their most accessible album since they said goodbye to the dance-punk scene back in 2004.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that the Liars crew should be waiting with bated breath for their invite to the KROQ Barbecue. Even on Sisterworld, the band treats verses and choruses like exotic ingredients rather than staples. And for a three-piece, their sound is intimidatingly dense. Whether they're drawing inspiration from trip-hop or post-punk, any listener without some taste for generous helpings of noise is going to have a hard time making it through track one. One of Liars's favorite tricks is to build up evocatively textured walls of synth and guitar, only to chew right through them with frenetic, hardcore-inspired riffing (look no further than the exhilarating opener, "Scissor").
But Liars didn't spend all that studio time crafting their alternate reality just to leave their listeners stranded in it. They prove to be capable tour guides, and with a few subtle changes to their approach, they make Sisterworld a much easier sonic space to navigate than either of their last two releases. Angus Andrew's vocals have been pushed to the front of the mix, and even when he's not delivering anything like a conventional hook, his performances provide an easy point of orientation amid the album's shifting sound collages. That's as true of his soulful invocations on the opening track as it is of his punky jeering on "The Overachievers."
The group has also committed, with two exceptions, to writing tracks that sit comfortably in the three-to-four-minute range. It's less disorienting than the flurry of shorter tunes on their last album, providing enough time for development and deconstruction. Compared to the similarly paced Drum's Not Dead, though, that process revolves more around dynamism than linear buildups, the pay off being that you never feel as though the band is making you wait for the good part. And on the rare track that just fails to take off altogether ("Drip" comes to mind), you don't have to put up with it for very long.
"I Still Can See an Outside World" is one of the mid-album highlights that shows nearly all of Sisterworld's better ideas at work. It leads in with a gorgeously gauzy dream-pop instrumental, but after two minutes all that ambient prettiness is shredded by a top-quality freakout, complete with chanted vocals and piercing guitar. The end result sounds a little like Blonde Redhead soundtracking a horror film. Which is likely no one's idea of accessible, but it's impressive how well the track holds together in both the pretty passages and the vicious ones. It also encapsulates much of what Sisterworld aims to do as a project, which is to find habitable sonic territory on the border between art-house ambiance and straight-ahead punk raucousness.
As the album reaches its end, it becomes clear that Sisterworld may owe some of its ease of entry to a victory of the former over the latter. Especially in the last third of the album, the band dials down the mercurial mood shifting and turns their attention to some of the prettier ambient tracks of their career. As musicians, they're more than up to the task, but as a finale for such a joyously unpredictable album, it comes off as sleepy and disengaged (though the ballistic "Overachievers," sandwiched between two slower tracks, admirably keeps the adrenaline pumping).
Even taking into account the disappointing final act, Sisterworld adds up to a thrilling listen. Like every recent Liars record, it's brimming with cool ideas and beholden only to its own internal logic. But less so than any of the band's past works does it demand that said logic be decoded before it gives up its rewards: There's plenty of music here that makes a terrific impact even on a casual listen. For those with any interest in rock's fringier permutations, it's a damn near compulsory purchase (or download, or whatever). For Liars, it's another triumph of stylized strangeness—and the third consecutive album on which they've proven themselves to be one of the most creative and compelling acts in the musical underground.