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Fear Factors

 

Liars: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned

Mute, 2004

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: March 12, 2004

By Laurence Station

A lot has changed for Liars since the band's attention-grabbing 2001 debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Bassist Pat Noecker and drummer Ron Albertson left the band, leaving its founding members -- guitarist Aaron Hemphill and singer Angus Andrew -- without a rhythm section. The duo relocated from bustling New York City to the isolation of New Jersey's woodlands, picking up percussionist Julian Gross in the process. All of which has led to the biggest change of all, evident throughout the new They Were Wrong, So We Drowned: the band's stylistic shift from angular, urban dance-punk to primitive, discordant tribal-noise experimentalism. Not to mention its subject matter: They Were Wrong takes its thematic cues from medieval witch-hunts and Walpurgisnacht, a German springtime celebration that -- according the legend -- is the night witches meet on top of Brocken mountain, the country's highest peak. The album's ten tracks alternate point-of-view between the fearful reactions of Christians and the innocent women who suffered as a result of their ignorance.

Co-produced by TV on the Radio's David Andrew Sitek, They Were Wrong sports a uniform tonality decidedly lacking on the band's debut: The coupling of spare drumbeats with buzzing electronics and intermittently corrosive feedback creates an unsettling vibe that highlights the pagan-inspired back-story; Andrew's vocals primarily consist of blunt, monosyllabic chants like "blood," "choke," "die," "thirst" and "cry;" the majority of the hooks are obliterated by discordant noise. While this might seem like an excessive exercise in inaccessibility (indeed, several critics have likened the album to such fan-repellent fare as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music), the abrasive nature of the production meshes perfectly with the band's goal: to shine a light on fear, especially during the dead of night.

In that respect, They Were Wrong is a resounding triumph, from the opening "Broken (spelled Brocken in the liner notes) Witch," with its relentless marching beat and darkly incantatory lyrics; through the eerie "We Fenced Other Gardens With the Bones of Our Own" (which features the memorable, repeating line "Fly, fly, the devil's in your eye, shoot shoot"); to the steady comedown of closer "Flow My Tears the Spider Said," which intimates dawn breaking and a retreat from the engulfing darkness. "There's Always Room on the Broom" is the lone track that feels out of place, primarily because it sounds relatively conventional -- dare we say danceable -- compared to the rest of the material.

That the Liars choose to end things on the hopeful note of "Flow My Tears," complete with chirping birds and the soothing sounds of the ocean, nicely reinforces the idea of night-terrors and how reassuring something as common as the break of day can be (especially for those living in a time without such modern conveniences as electricity). It's that level of thoughtfulness that makes They Were Wrong, So We Drowned such a quantum leap for Liars, the group's The Bends to They Threw Us All in a Trench's Pablo Honey. Though it might not be the most easily digestible subject matter, it melds thought and execution as well as any concept album in recent memory.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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