Battles are the rare band for whom there arguably isn’t a definitive album. The deceptively obvious answer might be 2007’s Mirrored, a nearly perfect debut album of frantic math-pop exercises, weirdo-psych anthems and Animal Collective-gone-A.I. freakouts. But it’s also the only album in their catalog that sounds like that, in large part because it’s the only one to feature vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton. The band’s earlier EPs were more concentrated doses of intricate post-rock closer to that of Don Caballero, the former band of guitarist Ian Williams, and what they’ve done since has ranged from an everybody-in-the-pool approach on Gloss Drop, featuring guest vocalists such as Gary Numan and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino, to the vocal-free, pure, rhythmic groove of 2015’s La Di Da Di. And when considering that the one element that doesn’t change throughout every release is that intricate groove, one could easily make an argument that the latter is the purest expression of Battles’ sound.
Always finding new ways to express their complex instrumental compositions is what makes Battles a band that’s continually exciting to watch, even if it does sometimes feel like too many ideas coming at the listener at once. The band’s fourth album, Juice B Crypts, feels like the most unified fusion of the band’s past three efforts, from La Di Da Di‘s instrumental dazzle to Gloss Drop‘s collaborative spirit and Mirrored‘s gleeful, oddball songwriting. And for the first time in nearly a decade, they’ve brought in quite a few guests to help pull their sound into different directions. Some of them have the kind of expressively playful approach that recalls Braxton’s animated contributions, as Xenia Rubinos showcases on “They Played It Twice,” while one of the bigger names here, Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, essentially becomes part of the landscape on the vibrant and fun “Sugar Foot.”
The primary difference between Juice B Crypts and Gloss Drop is in how cohesive the overall product is between the more vocal-heavy tracks and those in which Williams and drummer John Stanier are simply letting their technically proficient performances do the talking. When the duo fire up on leadoff track “Ambulance,” they essentially send the message that they’re here to groove, and in the next 40 minutes, that groove doesn’t stop. It slows down to a coin-op arcade hip-hop strut in “IZM,” featuring Shabazz Palaces, bounces off interdimensional walls in the two halves of “Last Supper on Shasta,” featuring Tune-Yards, and makes a strong case for Battles’ second career as no-wave dancepunk outfit on “Titanium 2 Step,” featuring Liquid Liquid’s Sal Principato.
On some level, the best reason for listening to Battles is just to hear the peculiar interrobang of sounds that they manage to conjure up every time they step into the studio. Certainly, Williams and Stanier sound like they’re having as much fun as they’ve ever had on Juice B Crypts, but it’s also a consistently strong set of songs, one that showcases both the versatility and the cohesiveness of the duo after some 15 years or so building their sound into the labyrinthine scavenger hunt it’s become. I’m not necessarily saying it’s their definitive release, but I’m also not saying it isn’t.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.