Battles, Mirrored

Battles, Mirrored

Mirrored, the debut album by Battles, has been hotly anticipated, partly because it took nearly three years to finally appear, but mostly because the band unites guitarist Ian Williams with drummer John Stanier. Both men are icons to fans of intelligent hard rock: Williams helped reinvent the punk song as a dense cluster of instrumental riffs with post-rock giants Don Caballero, while Stanier defined hardcore crossover drumming with Helmet and later collaborated with Mike Patton and the Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison in Tomahawk.

The pedigrees of the two most well-known members of Battles have turned out to be unreliable indicators of the kind of music that they make together, however. Far more than any of the bands that Stanier or Williams played in before, Battles eschews standard rock song construction. The band creates music not by all playing a song together, but by layering simple musical elements and short riffs on top of Stanier’s drumming, rather more like an electronic artist. Indeed, Mirrored sometimes recalls the work of bands like the Liars that have recently rearranged their music around electronics.

This approach to composition makes for unusual and attention-grabbing music, but the band has difficulty wrestling these nonlinear pieces into compelling dramatic arcs. Mirrored‘s opener, “Race: In,” is an example: Stanier’s racing drumming and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton’s eerie vocals build up a good head of tension that simply vanishes unresolved at the end of the song. Likewise, “Tij” goes nowhere in particular and takes a good long time getting there, though it has quite a bit of fun with whole-tone scales and loops along the way. The unmistakable Williamsisms of “Tonto,” by contrast, build to a chilling release in the middle of the song — still leaving, however, more than four minutes of wind-down.

Battles also have trouble sustaining a mood. This is in large part due to Braxton, who often seems capable of neither singing in a voice untreated with comical pitch-shifting effects nor inserting these bizarre utterances into pieces that do not seem to call for them, such as the otherwise menacing “Leyendecker” — though, like a grackle’s call, they do fit rather well into the simulated birdsongs of “Bad Trails.” Braxton’s vocals have the paradoxical effect of wrecking the album’s continuity while simultaneously imposing a new continuity derived from his willful and self-absorbed experimentation. The pinnacle of this reappropriation is Mirrored‘s first single, “Atlas,” which hews more closely than any other song to the aesthetics of rock, building gradually on Stanier’s tribal shuffle and augmenting bouncing guitar riffs smartly with loops and electronics. Braxton’s vocal line fits right in, but his heavily whammied and filtered voice turns the song into a cartoonish romp. The good news is that everyone who’s been waiting to hear Donald Duck sing with members of Don Caballero and Helmet can finally relax and enjoy.

Braxton, not Williams or Stanier, is most often the star of the show here. Largely because of him, there has never been another band that sounds like Battles. That uniqueness is one of the best things that Battles have going for them, and it’s a very good thing indeed. It would have been nice, however, to be able to say that Mirrored was uniquely listenable as well.

[Battles is playing 6/23/07 at Numbers, with Ponytail & Sharks and Sailors.]
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Review by . Review posted Saturday, June 23rd, 2007. Filed under Reviews.

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