Drum’s Not Dead
t's postulated that the first music made by early humans—that is, the embryonic forms of non-vocal communication, structured sound in time—was made on drums. Many of the most ancient societies extant today, following traditions millennia old, use drums or other percussion as their primary musical instrument, for both entertainment and ceremony, which can be one and the same. Some communities seek communion with spirits, deistic or ancestral, through a semiconscious state brought on by intense physical movement over hours, using circles of drummers as a propulsive force into another world, out of the confinement of the self. This idea translates all over, from hippie bongo circles to raves to military marches, two-step and lock-step; the rhythm, the rhythm.
So there's a drum called Drum, and a mountain called Mt. Heart Attack, and they face off. Drum wants movement, forward forward forward, forever and ever, but Mt. Heart Attack stands in his way, immobile and unmovable, paralyzed by its own mass. The combatants are well-matched, a battle for the ages: determination vs. stasis, purposeful clarity vs. catatonic panic, fist vs. wall. As they stare each other down, they begin to influence one another; the drum gets low and barrels through, throwing jukes and head-fakes, and the mountain slows him down, evens him out, and stops him cold on steep, jagged cliff faces. There's violence and calm, and a barely-contained tension throughout, with out-of-nowhere tonal shifts and moments of serrated beauty. It's Liars' most accessible album, and their most determined and focused.
Weirdly, in a way it's also their least surprising. Its rhythm-centricity and droning noise-scapes catch reflections from some of their strongest past work—in particular “Drum and the Uncomfortable Can” could have slid neatly into the back half of 2004's They Were Wrong So We Drowned—so the record has the feeling of a culmination of sorts for the ongoing Liars experiment; sort of a diagonal step forward. But they still sound, as much as it's really possible, like nothing else but Liars. Looking around for references doesn't yield much: mid-period Neubauten comes to mind, and This Heat's self-titled debut even more so, but Drum's Not Dead is too warm, too humanist (well, anthropomorphic), and above all too pop for any of those to really stick. The album is divided roughly evenly into “Drum” tracks and “Mt. Heart Attack” tracks, and you can more or less tell right at the jump which is which. “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack” starts off like a cloudy pink sunrise, a guitar and organ drone cut through with an approaching drum herald. The mountain's drones are unchanging and intractable, but in short time, the drums hunker down and push forward until everything is simply cut off to make way for the blur-and-haze of “Don't Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack,” technically more of a “Drum” track, and one of two all-out frenzies here, pairing off a hail of deep, swirling basso percussion and sharp cymbal stabs with some sort of mutant hurdy-gurdy chasing its own tail in circles. It's a whirlwind, and grows ever fiercer, in demarcated steps like a ziggurat, over its four-and-a-half minutes. “A Visit From Drum” comes closest to what we might call “trancey” drum work, all spiraling patterns, as Angus falsetto-croons and stabs at a guitar at key moments. But it's still too raw and restless to really trance out to, and those patterns are constantly shifting and mutating into subtly different shapes, just as “Don't Wrestle”’s constant fits and starts constantly trip themselves up.
Apparently some old cultures, those with languages that utilize tone and volume to impart meaning, use what are called “talking drums,” which have different pitches and are used to emulate speech in music. In a similar fashion, Liars use drums as much for a tweaked sort of melody as for simple rhythm. The fractal criss-crossing on “Visit” holds the album's catchiest hooks, next to the church-organ coda and “dah dah dah”s on “It Fit When I Was a Kid,” and “Drum and the Uncomfortable Can” uses every edge of what sounds like a thundersheet for all sorts of harmonic/rhythmic mayhem. “Kid,” as a single, just sounds odd and kind of formless, but on the album, as the pivot point between two fun-house-mirrored halves, it makes perfect sense, and its own second half sends in a ray of misty sunshine. Particularly so here, Angus's lyrics—when they aren't hewing to the Manichean norm of “They will discover you / Drawing in your living room” on “The Wrong Coat For You, Mt. Heart Attack”—are more directly imagistic and evocative than ever: a crowd of chairs in deep space, battleships on a crystal sea, diamonds on glass. “Wrong Coat” is a tense slow-burn dirge, the strongest of the more somber and darkly menacing back-end, with soft washes of feedback, background coos, and lazy, drunken drum rolls. The title of the coda, “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” suggests a win for Drum, but instead it's a lovely, piano-led ballad, almost mournful in tone, and Angus barely exhales, “I won't run far / I can always be found / If you need me / I will stay by your side,” like he's just this side of consciousness, an ending of note-perfect uncertainty, which has kind of been the point with these guys all along, no? What's amazing is that even when they're at their least openly experimental—presenting the product of past experiments—they're still chock-a-block with surprises and feints in directions you never would have foreseen, like a manically strange, darkly and violently beautiful, and deliriously pop album like Drum's Not Dead.
Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2006-02-22