To get to the May 18th concert by the Brooklyn-based band Liars at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, you had to walk through the afterlife – the long sequence of rooms devoted to ancient Egyptian sculpture, hieroglyphic art and mummified royalty leading to the glass-walled space housing the Temple of Dendur. Oddly, considering the guaranteed visual wham of a performance framed by those sandstone columns, Aaron Hemphill, Julian Gross and singer Angus Andrew – all on various electronics with some live bass and Gross' Neu!-ride drumming – played on a stage facing the ruins. Our view over Andrews' Bunyan-esque frame and glowering vocal concentration: cryptic slashed-line graphics and live, moving images of the band projected on the huge stone wall over the front door.
Another disorienting surprise: Liars' one-hour no-encore set, presented by the New York organization Wordless Music, was largely comprised of new, unreleased material, with no introductory comments. Notably, the seven fresh tracks did not include two others the trio has just issued as free downloads, "I Saw You From the Lifeboat" and "Perfume Tear." There were also four songs drawn from the trance and shadows of last year's great, slow grower, WIXIW (Mute). In return for the majestic setting – especially as dusk turned to night on the other side of the sloping glass, adding to the shadows and torchlight effect in the room – Liars literally forced us to dance in the dark, without footnotes.
Mess With a Mission
Add to that the challenging high-ceiling acoustics, which whipped everything in the mix – especially Andrews' incantatory, pressed-into-the-red bark – into squirrely dub: the British post-punk jitters and surge of Wire and the Pop Group, shaved to angular, jutting hooks and German dance-floor rigor, then remixed by vintage fog-brained Lee Perry. One new song had the working title "Mess With a Mission." It suited everything Liars played – and the way the lines and edges in the music got whipped and shredded out of the machines, into the Temple's spectacular reverb.
The emphasis on unfamilar material surely had a lot to do with the lack of outright dancing in the small, lucky crowd. (The show was sold out, although capacity was understandably limited.) But Liars have, since their turn-of-the-millenium art-rock origins and slimming down to trio strength, been steadily refining their turbulence into an enervating subtlety – a moving music of concise ideas thumped and stretched into rolling, hovering magnetism. The beats and tensions were more overt at the Met; in another new song, Andrews' barked the chorus ("Facts is facts, fiction is fiction!") through cross-fired electronics and cheese-cloth distortion, as if he was summoning the spirit of Suicide's Alan Vega from the inner corners of the Temple.
But the prospective drama of Liars' next album was evident in the grip of the pulses and the striking, painterly effects Andrews and Hephill drew out from their technology, like Andrews' long woozy chords of what sounded like a medieval church organ, falling over drunk. And the show's closer, a new song titled (at least for the night) "Can't Hear Well," was actually effective, relative quiet, sung by Andrews with haunted, baritone clarity. Playing at the foot of a monument to gods, Liars finished the night with the dignity of prayer.