[23 March 2006]
The Battles are not an instrumental math rock ensemble featuring the former drummer from Helmet. Based on a randomly read email, this is precisely what was expected when Tomorrow’s Eager Hands came across the desk. The Battles (the other act is simply Battles) actually hail from Vancouver, and conjure dreamy melodies over a postpunk base of jangly guitars, new wave synth and fluid bass/drum rhythms. The ghosts of early Flying Nun Records, Todd Rundgren, Ray Davies, Roxy Music (I realize these people are not dead), and more hover sublimely over singer/guitarist Stephen Wood’s alternately impassioned, quirky, and detached songs. They can regularly make the heart shiver in its cage, even when the listener has no idea just what it is Wood might be singing about.
Just check out the hypnotic “Poem #8 (That Would be Good)”, its elastic bassline, gliding synth, and anthemic chorus invoking a worthy nod to Joy Division and wiping all memory of Interpol from the gray matter in the process. Too bad it’s so short, but the one minute and fifty seconds of desolate art pop wets the palate for more and serves as a worthy tribute to early post-punk with its haunted refrain, “We wont be the ones held responsible.” A similar trick is conjured in the understated opener “Changes” (not a Bowie cover), where a rhythmic pulse erupts into a throbbing strut as it reaches a crashing staccato climax. At loud volumes, it proves an inescapable rush, but it really is too short!
Wood and his band—including current and past members of Destroyer, Loscil, and Black Mountain—deliver repeatedly here with a palpable garage energy. These sorts of songs are typically impenetrable weird pop puzzles; think Mayo Thompson and his arty (de)constructions helmed as the Red Krayola, whom the press release compares Wood to. I don’t really hear it myself. Wood is more the sentimental type, and he believes wholeheartedly in the transformative power of the pop song, landing him closer to the the same stylistic plane as Robyn Hitchcock and Ray Davies.
Destroyer and New Pornographer fans will also want to note that Dan Bejar can be heard harmonizing on a few tracks, but I’m inclined to rate this higher than Destroyer or the recent work of The New Pornographers. Wood is a visionary, all-encompassing songwriter that may revel in the stripped down, minimal basics, but his imaginative use of harmonies, new wave synth, and massed distortion regularly ups the ante into the higher realms. The glory hewn “We Were Right to Fight” sounds almost like the New Pornos gone prog, and a welcome inclination towards moody, spectral folk pop (“In Excelsis, Yeah”) doesn’t disappoint. The blissful slack tempo of “Omega Man” employs a mellotron hauntedly over its sad melody. The instrumental “Susan’s Reply” is little more than a candle flicker of ambient tones and spare cymbal crashes that could be a nod to mid ‘70s Eno. Then there’s the monumental “Northern Man”—Mott the Hoople power chords over reverb-drenched drums—with a monster hook of a chorus that heads directly for the golden rock promiseland.
With Tomorrow’s Eager Hands, the Battles manage that rare feat of combining heart and sophistication into energetic pop constructions that sounds anything but studied. It may not be a constantly mind-blowing exercise. Few albums today are, but it’s an intelligent one. Most of the way, the Battles prove that they are the real deal for any fan of impassioned, occasionally psychedelic, art pop.