Review Summary: The future of music? It's here today.
Experimental music is just too much for some listeners, occasionally myself included. The loud noises, the constant time signature changes, the repeated notes, the warped Thom Yorke-wannabe voices- you can respect the fact they’re thinking outside the square, but the music doesn’t come off very well at all.
Sometimes, however, a group of experimental musicians will mix the avant-garde with pop music and progress in a way that just works. Bjork’s hugely successful career proves this. The huge hit of TV On The Radio’s “Return To Cookie Mountain” proves this. And here in 2007, after a string of EPs, American quartet Battles are twisting with the formula again with their debut album, Mirrored. If you’re after a genre or description, think of it this way- they don’t sound like anything you have ever heard before.
From the frantic drum introduction of “Race: In” , it’s quite obvious who leads the onslaught of music- former Helmet drummer John Stanier. Rolling Stone were right when they wrote of his work on the album- “Stanier is driving the bus- AND popping wheelies, pulling hairpin turns and sometimes even crashing the f*cker”. His layered and complex beats drive the songs he plays on better than any drummer I’ve heard in the past few years, maybe even this past decade. And “Mirrored” is no exception whatsoever- songs like lead single “Atlas” and “Leyendecker” are immediately recognizable for their drum intros, and Stanier continue to pound his way through the songs and the rest of the record.
However, it’s not all about him- hell, if it was, then it would just be drums for an hour on CD.
The other Battlers, as I’ve so dubbed them, are great musicians in terms of creating great hooks and atmospherics. In particular, their somewhat reluctant frontman Tyondai Braxton provides a world of vocal hooks; there are no real lyrics, but the tunes are hugely memorable as he toys around with his vocals with a world of knobs and pedals, especially in “Ddiamondd” and “Leyendecker”. This is the first recording of Battles to feature actual vocals (with the exception of beatboxing used on one of their EP tracks), and it has most certainly worked in their favour.
The random lead guitar, also, is similar to that of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez in the way it gives the music yet another layer and makes it that much more interesting.
The energy throughout this whole record is incredible- even on slower-tempo tracks, there is a strong sense of rhythm and groove. The band sound unbelievably tight; and instead of shying away from technology like a lot of rock bands do (White Stripes anyone?), the band embrace it completely. If you have seen the video for their single “Atlas”, you will notice that the band are surrounded by computers and other forms of keyboards and synthesizers. This is not your standard two-guitar-bass-drums band by a long shot.
There are so many areas that the band covers, galaxies away from the square most bands are thinking in these days. This is a band that are challenging what music can be, but also doing it in an incredibly listenable way. Every accentuation on Stanier’s (seven-foot-tall) crash symbol, every squeal from Braxton, every scale on the keyboard, every sparse note on the guitar- it sucks you into the song and takes you on somewhat of a musical journey. It doesn’t even seem to matter that the loops can, unsurprisingly, loop and repeat themselves occasionally once too often- it’s all just a part of the voyage through their musical world.
The best thing about all of this is that there is no filler on the record- even the slightly-under-a-minute “Prismism” and the slightly-under-two-minutes “Snare Hangar” work as a twisted and fun interlude and a catchy video-game esque number respectively. I don’t know what kind of snare drum Stanier is using in “Hangar” (electronic, maybe?) but it sounds fantastic.
All in all, this is without doubt one of the best records to be made in recent times. A vividly original, creative, intense, immediate and brilliant collection of music by a quartet of people who are not just musicians, but true artists.