The New York experimental rock three-piece Battles can claim a definition most bands never will: uniqueness. Two EPs and two studio albums into their thirteen year career, their music remains peculiarly singular and arrestingly impressive. Multi-instrumentalists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka perform a mix of guitar, bass, keyboards, and computer wizardry, while drummer John Stanier holds down some of the most precise and technically demanding drumming in modern music. These three perfectionists blend technological progressiveness with raw analogue performance in a dizzying, visceral kaleidoscope.
Until 2010, the band counted experimental performer Tyondai Braxton as a member, mainly serving as a vocalist. Braxton left midway through the recording of Battles’ second album Gloss Drop on amicable terms, and his departure was a huge loss for the band. Debut album Mirrored had been one of 2007’s best, where Braxton’s wild, manipulated vocals represented a melodic element for most tracks, giving the futuristic music a spectacular focal point. Yet Gloss Drop eventually proved that Battles could go it alone on a (mostly) instrumental basis, aided as they were by guest vocalists (including Gary Numan and Yamantaka Eye) on a few tracks.
This year’s La Di Da Di sees Battles in fully instrumental form, without guest vocalists of any sort. In many ways, this record sees a return to the sorts of sporadic art rock that typified the band’s early EPs. Back then, their music was largely instrumental, too; in fact, Mirrored was Battles’ only release to prominently feature vocals. Their EPs were comprised of rhythmically intense, wildly ambitious experimentalism, with breakneck tempos, alien song structure, and abstract melodic wails forming most of what we heard.
La Di Da Di sees the band return to Machines with Magnets, the same Pawtucket, Rhode Island recording studio in which both Mirrored and Gloss Drop were painstakingly committed to tape. On this release, not only are the three members working strictly as an instrumental trio for the first time, Battles’ approach to songwriting has been simplified to its essence.
Most every song is given a structure through a repeatedly looped, abstract electronic passage which is then expanded, built upon, and played over. Atonal, often harsh, and obscure, these glitchy loops are the sort of thing most bands would be ill-advised to craft their songs around. Fittingly for a band so obtuse, Battles dive into the challenge spectacularly, and accordingly this unconventional, looped format is something of a trademark. Having a somewhat formulaic core is a necessary element for Battles, too; Stanier’s drumming seems to move of its own accord, while Williams and Konopka don’t play melodies as such. Rather, the guitar, bass, and keyboard elements serve mostly to further each song’s rhythmic intensity while adding textural complexity and sonic depth.
Lead single The Yabba opens with an electronic squall of feedback that resolves into tribal drumming and a jerky 5/4 time signature. Before long, the quiet unsettling ambiance of the track abruptly shifts to a half-tempo breakbeat groove. Stanier’s skittering hi-hats explode rapidly into flurries of sixteenth notes as syncopated bass riffs and heavily effected guitar arrangements duel with each other. Typical of Battles songs, The Yabba has little semblance of traditional song structure; rather, it lumbers forward like a strange, uncontrollable beast. These tracks seem to evolve of their own accord through organic movement and technical fireworks, like so many baking soda volcanoes in science class.
Battles’ music has always been part science, part sound. They belong to the broad genre of math rock, bringing a geeky exuberance to structure, musicianship, and performance. Still, Battles have never lacked warmth; though many of their contemporaries can occasionally veer into the realm of cold technicality, this band knows how to make music with genuine impact. From schizoid early cuts like Ipt–2 which were so irrepressibly funky that they could not help but make heads nod and feet tap, to the humanist heart attack of their biggest song Atlas, Battles manage to sound alien and inviting at the same time.
Dot-Net revisits the band at their explosive, complex best, while Summer Simmer build abrasively to a frantic climax so torn by opposing rhythmic elements it is overwhelming. The beat-less Cacio e Pepe is a welcome reprieve from the mania of most of these tracks, though Battles are unable to make even an interlude in compliance to convention; the shifting, buzzy melodic elements are always disappearing, changing, or giving way to a percussive sequenced loop that runs the length of the track. Elsewhere, the acid-trip haunted house funk of Megatouch has to be heard to be believed.
Only Stanier can command the sorts of breakbeat-inspired drums we hear on Dot Com and Luu Le. With a background as the metal band Helmet’s drummer for ten years throughout the ‘90s, Stanier hits his skins hard when he plays. As the crash of his symbols percolates in the air, bone-shaking kick drums, furious full-kit flurries, and a sharp snare drum punch with methodical intent. Stanier’s drumming is perhaps Battles’ greatest asset, in that it is so immediately identifiable and eminently inimitable. His drumming is a wonder to behold, and - alongside these song’s foundational melodic loops - the most dependable element in Battles’ music, as the spiky guitar, bass, and keyboard arrangements stop, start, and do battle.
Battles have been known to sleep in their recording studios for seven months at a time, slavishly dedicating themselves to the perfectionistic pursuit of greatness. And their investment pays off; every sound, every component here speaks of untold attention to detail. The recording quality is superlative, and the individual musicianship is always understatedly brilliant, without being showy.
This is not an album of singles, nor is it a collection of songs which will make much sense when heard out of context. It is impossible to compare a band as singular as Battles to any artist who does not dwell within the alien universe these New Yorkers have created on each and every record. What’s more, without the softening effect of a Braxton or a Newman providing a vocal melody, we are left with Battles at their most basic. As such, these strange and wild snippets of instrumental music will be un-relatable for most and challenging even for dedicated Battles fans.
Yet the songs on La Di Da Di are fully-realised tapestries by three of contemporary music’s most stunningly talented instrumentalists. For once, the pretentious moniker of art rock can be sensibly applied to an act. Battles function as boundary-pushing pioneers, willing to drag their instruments beyond the normal limits; willing to make music so unconventional it is likely to be misunderstood by most. The immense talent and dedication that speak through every one of these songs will remain only for those with the inclination to truly listen, and Battles seem to be just fine with that.
Innocuous in name only, La Di Da Di is an intense album. A tide of doomsday distortion and tribal rhythm begin Tricentennial, a track that resolves in a pounding twist on surf rock made by evil robots. Meanwhile, Non-Violence counts amongst Battles’ heaviest moments, as wailing sirens and chaotic keyboard harshness being the track to a furious, rapidly repeating passage that recalls the fantastic instrumental breakdown of Atlas, while screaming guitar effects soar overhead. This is visceral music, totally wired into our body’s love of rhythm and our brain’s love of stimulus.
Battles make, by and large, extraordinarily inaccessible music. This record is the sort of cerebral experience usually delegated to the high-end headphones of a minimalist architect, too strange to hold the attention of most listeners. Yet Battles’ commitment to their unique aesthetic is to be highly commended in these all-too-generic days of niche genres and easily-definable movements. It is truly a pleasure to live in a world where three musicians have the imagination and talent required to create music this confusingly, delightfully, bizarrely extraordinary.
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