Battles are an experimental rock outfit hailing from New York whose debut studio album released in 2007 has been hailed as somewhat of a math rock masterpiece (a mathsterpiece?) – a sentiment I firmly stand by. Leading up to this release Battles released two EPs under the names ‘EP C’ and ‘B EP’ respectively. These EPs only hinted at what Battles had hidden under their sleeves, and in hindsight it’s almost as if they were holding back to make their debut that much more impressive.
The album opens with abstract rhythmic patterns sounding like their inspiration has been taken from Morse code à la Rush’s ‘YYZ’. Yet the progressive similarities don’t end there. Battles have created a fusion of progressive, indie, kraut, math, jazz and post-rock and yet in the process end up sounding like nothing else on this planet. The in-human sounds made by Tyondai Braxton trade lyrics for whistling, chipmunk pitch-shifting and a gibberish array of consonants. Tied with the hammer sampling on the track ‘Race : In’ these whistles create an joyous atmosphere like that of Snow White’s ‘Whistle While You Work’.
This playfulness is exuded throughout the entire album too. Cheerful melodies establish Battles mentality – that there is fun to be found in math rock. The cartoonish, robot-like voice of Braxton on the track ‘Atlas’ is childlike in its bliss, yet the robotic feel penetrates more than just the vocals. It may seem like descriptively this album is hard to nail down, and it is, but one all-encompassing word for it is futuristic. New technology has been embraced in order to produce analogue rhythms and IDM beats, and without this the labyrinthine feel of the many pulsating layers of patterns would be lost.
But what really makes this album is the skill of the musicians. The genres of math and progressive rock contain a lot of musicians that can only be described as “masturbatory”. They play seemingly impossible rhythms and melodies as a way to show off, and while each member of Battles could easily do this, it is their interplay which removes any chance of doing so. John Stanier’s drums keeps Iain Williams and David Konopka dual guitars in control when experimenting, and the repetition of their certain riffs keeps the manic, but military-like precision of the drums in line too.
Repetition is also key to Battles’ success. Riffs continue until they are on the cusp of growing stale at which point they suddenly change to something else completely. There are tight turns in tempo, rhythm and melody in abundnace and a great deal of momentary riffs. The tunes build up until they end up sounding as if they are made up of 100s of parts, but their merriness makes you forget the extent of what you’re hearing. It is also particularly hard to discern when the band is improvising or even if they are at all. The control in Stanier’s drums suggests a planning to songs but the interaction between musicians is so on form that I’d be unsurprised to hear that this was an album crafted by robots with an algorithm made to create the finest jams.
In all, Battles’ ‘Mirrored’ is one of the finest albums of the math rock genre itself, and it only improves after repeated listens. Revisiting this album is a reward in itself as each time something new is heard – it seems impossible that anyone could wrap their head around the whole of this album. Those with experience of creating music are going to love and hate this album out of respect and jealousy, yet there is an appeal to all in its fun and carefree attitude.(Pixel art created by Brampf: http://brampf.tumblr.com/)