Review Summary: US math rockers Battles manage to overcome a whole bunch of genre trappings on this mighty fine release.
I gotta admit, I’ve never been too fond of the “math rock” genre. I mean, I’ll (very) occasionally listen to some Hella or throw on some Shellac, but my general view of math rock is that it’s little more than over-technical, robotically-played, mostly instrumental indie rock music for hipsters who’re too “cool” to listen to Dream Theater or some technical Death Metal band, but still need a daily fix of “look how fast I can play”-type instrumental showoff.
So why’s this guy reviewing an album by Battles, a pan-North American math troupe that even includes the ex-guitarist of genre pioneers Don Caballero then, you ask? Well, I stumbled across Mirrored, their full-length debut after 4 EPs, in the British Uncut magazine, where it received a generally positive review, and was likened to krautrock and later-period Boredoms, both of which I hold very dear to my heart. So I decided to give it a shot (read: Soulseek download) despite Battles’ mathematical stench. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
Right from the start, Mirrored dispelled most of my fears that this would be another piece of odd-time-signature self indulgence as played by boring-looking, neatly-combed 20-somethings. The album’s quirky opening track, Race In already avoids a lot of what I hate about math rock in general, like lifeless, robot-like playing and ultra-precise, eventless repetition. Kicked off by some Jaki Liebezeit-esque tribal drumming courtesy of John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk) and a Kraftwerky synth bass line, the track builds into a colourful swirl of squiggly synths, fast guitars and looped, wordless vocals by the band’s guitarist/electronicist/leader Tyondai Braxton (son of avant jazz legend Anthony Braxton!). It displays a lively, almost exuberant vibe usually not found in this kind of music.
But the bliss ain’t over yet! This album is consistent and offers up plenty of other awesome moments for you to enjoy. Also it keeps the aforementioned refreshing lively vibe almost the whole way through. The second track Atlas, for instance, is driven by a John Lee Hooker-ish boogie stomp rhythm(!) and offers up heavy bass rumbles. The dark, africanised Tonto reaches a steaming climax at approximately half of its 7 mins and 43 secs and then builds down sloooowly to fade out completely makes this whole “repetition” thing seem fun, Tij (my personal album fave) is a finger-muted guitar frenzy with drum’n’bass like rhythms, that’s, bizarrely enough, based around a hectic breathing noise. The John Zornian Rainbow and Ruins-sounding Ddiamondd (sic) are something to behold as well.
The way Tyondai uses live electronics to loop and manipulate his vocals and guitar, as well as the other members’ performances (especially in the aforementioned Tij, just listen to that looped fingermuted guitar at the end!) and the “fairy forest” type melodic sense he and Ian Williams (who also plays guitar) get across in their synth playing reminds me a lot of Rhode Island freaks Black Dice in a way. Actually, just think of weirded-down version of these guys with a strong sense of rhythm and you’re pretty close to what some of the synth-heavier pieces on here sound like (particularly Race In and parts of Rainbow).
See, Battles aren’t nearly as guitar-centric a band as you might think, also unusual for math rock. In fact, Tyondai and Ian rarely play their six-stringers at the same time, cos one of them performs the synths and the guitars are never particularly high in the mix. Both their skills shall not be denied though. I mean, I can’t really tell who plays what, but it’s cool stuff throughout. It’s the usual math high-precision stuff, but with a slightly less mechanical approach in places. Refreshing yet again.
It ain’t all great and innovative though: Bad Trails as well as the album closer Race Out are horrible looping/repetition stuff that just bores and the redundant, albeit short, genre exercise Snare Hanger (sounds like they put that there to prove they could do this math rock thing according to the rule book as well) could have omitted or replaced by uhh… better tracks. Still, the majority of this is ***ing out-of-control genius, I assure you!
So if you have only a slightly open mind, or intend to buy one at a thrift shop, go buy to this tomorrow, alienate your family with it and bathe in its squiggly, lively sound. The math rock album even math anti-talents like me can love!