Full of dense, droning industrial soundscapes beset by booming bass beats, Mess may be Liars’ darkest album, which is saying a lot for a band so well versed in cultic, gloomy theatrics. Opening with the barked commands of a sinister robotic voice on “Mask Maker,” this is the work of a group whose descent into electronic experimentation has allowed access to increasingly hellish, alienating terrain. That opening sets up a conflict between organic and electronic elements, the traditional instrumentation of earlier guitar and feedback-oriented efforts versus ever-more strident machine-produced sounds, and what follows isn’t much of a contest, with the forcefully artificial prevailing across this stifling but ultimately impressive album.
Mess is in some ways the harsher cousin to 2012’s WIXIW, abandoning much of that album’s mystical groove in favor of punishing, straightforward attack. These songs still contain the fundamental creepy undercurrent that’s marked all of Liars’ seven albums to this point (the chanted vocal patterns, hypnotic rhythms, and obscurely delivered lyrics), but these elements have been pushed beneath insistent pulsing beats and lots of bassy interference. In a career defined by works that can be boiled down to simple conceits, this is Liars’ dance album, albeit one that sucks anything cheerful or welcoming out of dance structures, creating music that, while likely antithetical to actual dancing, retains the sonically adventurous spirit that sustains the creative fringes of the genre.
Upon first listen, Mess seems too true to its name, too punishing and relentless. But there are spaces within these heavy slabs of sound, containing textures and grooves that become clearer after the initial shock of that heaviness fades. “Mess on a Mission” finds singer Angus Andrews’s caterwauling smashed and twisted above a racing collection of harsh pulses, pendulum beeps, and snare strikes, while “I’m No Gold” varies its pounding four-on-the-floor assault with eerie, crooned intrusions.
After six tracks defined by thickly thudding, ritualistic intensity, Mess then pulls off a surprising reversal, with a back half that steadily dials down the menace. Culminating with the spooky but comparatively peaceful sprawl of “Perpetual Village” and “Left Speaker Blown,” this section offers a nice ambient afterglow, the friendlier side of the electronic mayhem that made the first half so oppressive. It’s another welcome reversal for a band that, while keeping true to the same program of intense macabre album after album, keeps finding new ways to vary their ominous approach.