Puzzle pop mentalists masterfully drag music into the future
Ever since legendary punk ’zine Sniffin’ Glue scrawled the manifesto “Here’s a chord, here’s another one, here’s another one, now go form a band”, indie rock critics have looked on with suspicion at musicians who can actually play. In short, we can crystallise this attitude using two examples. 1) You can’t strum a chord – fuck, you barely know which way up to hang your guitar – but you have the passion, and thus the holy well from which all the greatest rock’n’rollers springeth. 2) You have spent 93 per cent of your waking hours practising guitar scales in a room that smells like a dead student. You can play guitar with all the brain-melting dexterity of Yngwie Malmsteen, the poodle-haired rock Viking beloved of European exchange students for his ability to reinterpret great classical music in the medium of shred guitar. And you are, quite obviously, a bit of a twat.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. In recent months, we’ve seen a handful of young UK bands – Hot Club De Paris and Foals – eager to dance fretboards and jimmy with time signatures like their lives depended on it. Meanwhile, over the pond, Kill Rock Stars, the label that signed The Gossip, have signed Marnie Stern, a freckle-nosed New Yorker who ‘shreds’ her ‘axe’ like a Scandinavian with an armadillo down his leather kecks. And, of course, there is New York’s Battles.
Battles number four: Tyondai Braxton, the son of an avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton, Dave Konopka and Ian Williams of math-rock ensembles Lynx and Don Caballero, plus, behind the drum-kit, a big bugger called John Stanier who used to batter the skins in ’90s rockers Helmet. Battles are – gasp – experimental. But before you adopt a ‘Bored? Me?’ position, fear not. On ‘Mirrored’, Battles play fun. So we compiled a fun checklist. Laptop-twisted vocals that sound like helium-huffing pixies dancing round an inflatable Stonehenge? Big, lolloping rock beats that frolic along like a Dulux dog the size of a prehistoric mastodon? Dual guitars that shimmer and shiver like a battalion of tiny spiders dancing up and down your spine wearing tiny tin-foil boots? All these things, and more, appear on what is surely the album’s standout track and former NME Track Of The Week, ‘Atlas’. On the surface, it’s a bouncy, glam-rock floor-filler that harkens back to the saucy ’70s school-disco bounce of The Glitter Band, The Sweet and T-Rex. But, as you’re going to learn, with Battles, concepts have a habit of going a little deeper. ‘Atlas’, the band claim, is based on the rhythm of ‘schaffel’ – a shuffling techno offshoot that surfaced a few years back in the clubs of Cologne. So, when Battles take up guitars, keyboards and drums to recreate it, they’re in fact tracing a neat circle of influence: from rock to rave, back to rock.
So, what other tricks does ‘Mirrored’ pull? Well the trick is, you don’t have to keep checking – it’s easy enough just to drift off and let these tracks gently massage your eardrums like a hover of trained hummingbirds. But if you choose to look beneath the surface, each track audibly vibrates with ideas. Hear how, on ‘Race: In’, waterfall guitar cascades and vocal choruses are suddenly interrupted by a Santa’s sleigh of jingling bells, or how, at the song’s climax, Tyondai’s vocal spirals up the octaves like it has a devious plan to shatter a nearby cabinet of expensive glassware. How the comedy tumbles of ‘Rainbow’ would perhaps suit the clown show at a particularly avant-garde circus. How ‘Leyendecker’ could almost be a brave new R&B joint from the Timbaland stable, right down to Tynodai’s tech-warped diva trills.
Do Battles ever go too far? Well, sometimes. ‘Bad Trails’ spends an interminable five minutes trying to decide whether to become Mercury Rev, and then decides to smoke some weed instead. But it’s notable how remarkable Battles are at pulling back from the brink of masturbatory prog-rock excess. There are no heroes here, only team players. Sometimes the guitars are all off on deranged tangents, and it’s Stanier’s solid drums that reel the musicianship in from the edge of excess. Other times, it’s the guitars that hold the fort, intricate weaves of sound that form a safety net for the more acrobatic percussion excesses. It’s pretty incredible, and even when Battles are totally bugging out there’s a beautiful symmetry at play.
That’s Battles, then: avant-brainboxes with a mad scientist streak – the rock’n’roll scholars it’s OK to like. It would take an insane optimist to predict ‘Mirrored’ will dislodge Arctic Monkeys from the stereo in the nation’s metaphorical chip shop, but ‘Mirrored’ is the sort of album that the sharp rock kids will be citing as an inspiration in the pages of NME in a decade’s time. It’s a glimpse through a prism into a myriad of rock futures, and all of them look like a blast.