The past month in record releases saw the emergence of the following: 1. the 18th studio album from Rush; 2. a new album by The Bad Plus titled Prog; 3. the debut album from New York’s Battles. Listen to these three records in a row, and you’re not likely to find a common thread between them, at least not initially. Yet they all share the similar bond of being called `prog.’ The Bad Plus may be such in their album’s name only, but the Rush album should be pretty self-explanatory. With Battles, however, it’s a little more complicated than that. To call them `prog’ might suggest dinosaur-rock leanings, infinite wankery, science fiction, and Roger Dean album covers. With the exception of that last item, just about any of these can apply to Battles, yet none of them really touches upon the vast landscape of mathematical mayhem they lay out on Mirrored.
So there’s some technical wizardry here, and there most certainly should be. Tyondai Braxton, John Stanier, Ian Williams and David Konopka are four of the most talented musicians to lay their hands upon instruments in rock music today, and surely put their mad skills to use on Mirrored. Stanier’s mad rattles and taps open leadoff track “Race: In” with urgency and tension, Konopka and Williams soon enough creating their own water dance of guitars, Braxton chiming in with atmospheric keyboards and his own nonsensical vocals. It’s an impressive interlocking machine of melody and technicality, aurally pleasing, yet precise, mapping out the meeting place between Blade Runner and a Raymond Scott factory orchestration. And yet, on screen, that seems like such a misleading comparison.
Battles has a touch of classic rock in them as well, most notably on “Atlas,” which could best be described as cybernetic T. Rex. Stanier hammers out a heavy, swaggering, strutting beat that approximates Bolan’s most thunderous anthems. The chunky riffs and low-rolling bassline, too, further the similarities to the 20th Century Boy. And then come the vocals—processed, robotic, chipmunk-y, it soon sounds a lot less like T. Rex and a lot more like Animal Collective. And yet, it still rips, stomping and strutting, glam riffs blazing, super low-end synths buzzing like the collective grumble of stormtroopers. It’s a little absurd, really, but it’s mostly awesome.
Suffice to say, the science fiction quotient on this album is pretty high, but not for any overblown fantasy narratives. Rather Battles create their own robotic visions with their music alone. With the oddball vocal effects in “Atlas” alone, Battles accomplish that feat early. But then comes the high-speed electro-whirlwind in “Ddiamondd” to take this time machine further into the band’s bright and shiny tomorrow. The intense throbs and high-pitched vocals of “Leyendecker” make it sort of a post-modern smooth R&B jam, while the whimsical breakdowns of “Rainbow” have a playful quality, a harmonization of misfit toys gone impressively precise. And even “Bad Trails,” for being more of an atmospheric pop song, seems to take its rhythm from the classic Centipede arcade game.
For a band that carries tags like `math rock’ and `prog’ with them (reluctantly, I’m sure), Battles has one thing going for them that places them on a higher plateau than many of their peers—an arsenal of imaginative, unique and accessible songs. “Atlas” and “Leyendecker” are prime examples of the melodic insanity these dudes can wield, as is the eight-minute “Tonto,” in which the band is at their hardest rocking, their most bass heavy, and their most delicate, simultaneously. Meanwhile, “Tij” is awe-inspiring in other ways altogether, repeating mechanical riffs in an odd video game symphony, whilst sonically building into a mega-heavy rock opus. It’s playful but it’s loud. It’s almost downright funny in its zany twists and turns, but serious in how amazing it sounds.
Progressive in every sense of the word, Battles are contradictory in the most baffling of ways. Their arrangements are certainly complicated, but their melodies accessible and fun. They’ve got chops and they know how to wield them, yet few records released this year sound this fun and have such a sense of humor about them. After one listen, it may not all sink in, but a few more listens to Mirrored will have even the most cynical and skeptical among us smiling giddily while attempting to mimic every drum fill and insane riff.
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.