While Battles have suffered from a profound lack of mainstream exposure, many of those familiar with their idiosyncratic brand of indie experimentalism have touted the group as the future of rock music. I've always felt that if a single style can be said to be indicative of the direction of the industry as a whole then the future of the medium will doubtless be rather stale and formulaic, but what I wouldn't dispute is that Battles' full length debut, Mirrored, is indeed a truly unique foray into the realm of innovative noisemaking, a brilliantly realized opus that truly sounds like no other rock act on the contemporary music scene.
The revolution that Battles enact is purely musical, as the band's lyrics are seldom decipherable, let alone meaningful. Rather than attempting to convey complex messages or erudite sentiments through their words, Battles treat their lyrics as ingredients for their intricately structured sonic architecture.
Battles' arrangements are meticulously crafted down to the smallest detail, implemented with an unerring mathematical precision, yet despite this almost robotic perfection the band's music always feels fresh and organic. Battles' songs feel like the colorful voices of artists filtered through a computer, as opposed to the monochromatic voice of the computer itself a la Autechre.
Battles are comprised of the alum of several obscure indie outfits, yet despite their relative lack of familiarity with one another their interplay is flawless, betraying a level of chemistry seldom encountered in groups that have been playing together for years. A troupe of multi-instrumentalists, Battles depicts an elite group of virtuosos gelling together perfectly, with each note in precisely the right place. While this can partially be attributed to the obviously extensive studio editing process, it's clear that even with the layers of enhancements stripped away the group are a formidable presence when it comes to instrumental chops, and their merits as an ensemble are unmistakable.
From all of my allusions to mathematical precision and mechanical perfection one would be forgiven for concluding that Battles are a painfully serious, self-important, no-nonsense rock group, but this couldn't be further from the case. There's a certain sense of whimsy that inhabits most tracks on Mirrored, dispelling any danger of the band degenerating into somber, pretentious intellectualism. Battles rarely take themselves seriously, which renders their monumental self-indulgence far more palatable.
Each soundscape on Mirrored is truly a stunning sonic spectacle, a panorama of interlocking networks of notes and chords that collide with the utmost grace and fluidity. Each note falls into place with a tehcnical level of flawlessness, yet there are no traces of scientific sterility or robotic artificiality.
Despite the intricate process unfolding on Mirrored the melodies remain highly accessible and compelling, animated by a vitality and charm that effortlessly penetrate the layers of potentially numbing 'perfection.' Instantly gratifying pop hooks abound, as the listener is never forced to exert much energy or wade into the deep, mind-blowing arrangements in order to enjoy the music. While it's true that in order to fully appreciate the album one must endeavor to process the layers upon layers of aural richness, this task is hardly necessary to have a good time, though it is true that such diligence will be duly rewarded.
Highlights abound, and the harshest critique that can be leveled against a track is, as in the case of numbers like Prismism, merely a matter of unfortunate brevity. Race: In is a perfect introduction to the off-kilter world of Battles, while Atlas manages to be anthemic despite its mantra-like squeaky chanting. Ddiamondd is controlled chaos at its finest and Leyendecker is infectious with its maddeningly catchy pseudo-vocals, though it's on the epics that Battles truly excel. Thus Rainbow's gradual build-up propels it to the heights of sonic majesty, Tonto is extremely catchy and Tij, despite a potentially grating sound sample that recurs throughout it, is still a wonderful showcase for the band's gifts, be they technical or eccentric.
The one unavoidable problem that one will encounter on Mirrored is that the tracks, while immensely entertaining, consummately unique and original and flawlessly performed and produced, simply aren't engaging from an emotional perspective. This is an inevitable product of what's ultimately a deeply experimental, artistic and intellectual exercise. While the band evade the usual pitfalls of a project of that nature, namely never sounding pretentious, calculated, bloated or elitist, they can't conceal the fact that Mirrored was never meant to affect one on an emotional level, and while not all albums need to evoke deep feelings from the listener this does serve to dilute the ultimate potency of the CD as a whole.
Nevertheless this liability, if it even is one, can easily be overlooked given the copious merits of the album. Mirrored is a true masterwork, a unique, one-of-a-kind experience that may not be the future of rock music but certainly would be a welcome addition to the musical annals of any era. Boasting terrific melodies, unconventional yet unforgettable pop hooks and a healthy level of diversity that doesn't compromise the cohesive feel of the album, Mirrored is quite simply an amazing product. It may not move you on an emotional level, but it excels in virtually every other department.
Several years after the release of Mirrored, Tyondai Braxton left Battles to pursue a solo career. His departure left John Stanier, Ian Williams and David Konopka to fend for themselves as a trio, having lost one of the driving creative forces behind the band.
While there was no attempt to replace Braxton as a musician or songwriter, the group did introduce new talent in the form of several vocal cameos. These guest vocals aren't merely the squeaky, indecipherable noisemaking that fans of Battles have grown accustomed to from tracks like Atlas. Rather, these are real vocals, clearly enunciated and fully coherent.
Battles purists may scoff at the introduction of such vocals, viewing them as a concession to mainstream rock fans. This critique would be misguided, however. These vocals are no more an attempt to normalize or commercialize Battles' sound than Braxton's tuneful gibberish had been on Mirrored.
Closer inspection reveals that these vocalist-cameos serve much the same function as Braxton's singing had on the band's debut. They are meant to complement the music rather than draw attention from it, accentuating the melodies and preserving the signature Battles spirit.
Aside from these cameos, little has changed in the world of Battles. The band still feel like aural architects, painstakingly building structures of sound with mathematical precision. These sonic spectacles aren't merely meant to be admired or respected, however. While their intricacy and complexity may be daunting, the soundscapes remain perfectly accessible, intended for enjoyment rather than just 'appreciation.'
Much of this can be attributed to a simple fact: on some level, every track on Gloss Drop is a pop song. Unconventional pop, unorthodox pop, idiosyncratic pop, but pop nonetheless. No matter how experimental or daring the album's tracks are, they all contain catchy melodies and plentiful hooks.
This may not be readily apparent to the uninitiated. Few tracks adhere to standard pop-song structures, and it's easy for a novice to get lost in the controlled chaotic crossfire of Battles' arrangements. Perseverance is rewarded, however, as attentive listens reveal melodies that are as memorable as they are unique.
The album's pop side is particularly evident on the tracks with vocals. Ice Cream, graced by the vocal stylings of one Matias Aguayo, is simply incredibly catchy, establishing a pop-funk groove that's nearly impossible to resist. Aguayo's vocals account for much of the track's charm, but the melody itself is sheer sonic brilliance even without his deft contributions. Ice Cream is undeniably a pop song, but it's doubtful that listeners have ever heard a pop song quite like this before.
Ice Cream is also emblematic of one of Gloss Drop's greatest assets, namely the band's whimsical, playful side. Despite the album's almost surgical precision, intricate musicianship and complex arrangements, Gloss Drop feels fresh and organic, the work of men rather than machines. This was also the saving grace on Mirrored, but some were concerned that this aspect of the band's personality would be lost with the departure of Braxton. Thankfully such is not the case, as Battles are as colorful and vibrant as ever, never feeling cold, clinical or robotic.
As I've remarked in the past, while Battles are overflowing with personality they seldom, if ever, feel emotional. This is not music that will move you, as the band maintain a safe distance from their listeners. This is not a flaw, but it may mar the experience of those seeking cheap tear-jerkers, personal resonance or full catharsis. Battles are simply not an emotional band, and once that has been accepted there's nearly nothing that can interfere with one's enjoyment of the album.