Let’s not bury the lede here. Battles kick off their third album with a track called “The Yabba”, but refuse to follow it up elsewhere on the record with “The Dabba” or “The Doo.” Other fans of Fred Flinstone’s catchphrase and esoteric, instrumental indie rock will surely be as disappointed about this as I was. Maybe the trio is planning on saving those two songs for the opening of their next two albums. As for the actual lede that I did bury up there, yes; as of La Di Da Di, Battles has gone fully instrumental. Founding member Tyondai Braxton’s heavily distorted vocals contributed greatly to the band’s initial single “Atlas” getting the band some early recognition. And even though many of the songs on that first album Mirrored were instrumental, Battles followed Braxton’s departure with a quartet of tracks featuring guest vocalists on 2011’s Gloss Drop. But in 2015 the band is no longer inclined to lean on singers, and the end result is a more focused album this time around.
Drummer John Stanier and multi-instrumentalists David Konopka and Ian Williams seem to have honed in on the core elements of their sound for La Di Da Di and built outward from there. Most of the songs here feature a distinctive, central rhythm from Stanier and/or a signature melody of some sort. The lasting impression Gloss Drop left was that it was a bit bloated, which wasn’t necessarily true. But when you finish out an album with a pair of seven-minute songs that are not the record’s best, well, it alters listeners’ perceptions of the whole.
This is not the case with La Di Da Di. Although closer “Luu Le” is the longest song on the album, it’s a playful one, opening with an interesting combination of martial snare drumming and sleigh bells from Stanier, and a synth riff that sounds like a slightly distorted pizzicato violin. After a couple of minutes, Stanier shifts into a slower, funkier groove that relies heavily on kick drum and hi-hat, while Konopka and Williams continue to use variations on their pizzicato tones and initial melody. Organically, the song shifts into a slower, fatter guitar riff that still feels related to the initial melody, before coasting into a gradual fadeout. La Di Da Di’s strong, fun finish is buoyed by its penultimate song, the 87-second long “Flora > Fauna”, which begins with a manic, high-pitched melody that is quickly joined by a head-bobbing bass accompaniment. And then Stanier drops in with a cool, irregular beat that goes for about ten seconds, stops for another ten seconds, and starts again while the melody and bass continue. It’s unusual and very fun, and by keeping the song short the band doesn’t wear out the simple musical idea.
The band continues to emphasize its playful side elsewhere on the album. “Dot Net” is anchored by an uptempo dance-rock beat but its wobbly, alternately squeaky and buzzy synth tone is what catches the ear. And the fact that the band knows just when to back off of that tone and the beat gives the song the necessary variety to keep from becoming repetitive. The companion piece “Dot Com” starts with similar background sounds, quietly bopping along for about a minute before Stanier and Konopka (on bass) come in with a simple groove. Williams shows up shortly thereafter with maybe La Di Da Di’s catchiest synth riff before the song bursts into a refrain complete with guitar power chords. It’s exhilarating to hear the band embrace something so traditional, and it’s the only time on the album that it happens. Despite the refrain only coming along twice in “Dot Com”, the positive vibes and the catchy synth riff carry through the rest of the song.
Some of the tracks here resemble previous Battles material. “FF Bada” is an uptempo song that trades similar, interlocking riffs back and forth between synths, guitars, and synths that sound like guitars. It would have fit right in on Mirrored. Similarly, “Cacio e Pepe” chugs along on a chunky, distorted synth loop for nearly three minutes while Stanier is relegated to occasional pounding on what sounds like a concert bass drum. It’s an interlude-type piece that would’ve slotted into Gloss Drop without anyone batting an eye. On the other hand, “Tricentennial” starts off with a beat resembling “Atlas”, but once the melody kicks in using a synth that sounds like a broken trombone, the song suddenly sounds like a twisted marching band in a (tricentennial?) parade. That makes it unique amongst Battles material.
Despite the overall focused feeling, La Di Da Di includes a small handful of longer, meandering tracks. “Megatouch” may wander the most. It starts with a slightly creepy organ-based groove that sounds like Battles doing a funked-up take on the Specials’ ”Ghost Town”. But around the two-minute mark the organ sound is abandoned for a more skittery, staccato synth sound that changes the entire feel of the song. Eventually this sound is also abandoned for something that sounds like big, fat bouncing bubbles. Through it all, though, Stanier’s steady rhythms keep the track from falling apart. Opener “The Yabba” also falls into this category, beginning with Stanier’s vaguely African-influenced, jungle-sounding beat, but shifting into a slower, guitar-based feel about 100 seconds into the song. Later on, the song shifts again into an upbeat pentatonic figure with some superfast hi-hat work. “The Yabba” ends up feeling like the best result of several takes on the same jam that the band played. “Summer Simmer” is also a longer track, skimming close to the six-minute mark, but it doesn’t meander at all. It stays focused on the same small collection of guitar and synth riffs and drumbeat for almost its whole running time. These are pretty good riffs, but they aren’t really enough to keep the song interesting for as long as the band is interested in repeating them. It ends up making “Summer Simmer” a bit of a slog, but the song is somewhat redeemed by its cheeky ending. The band drops the beat and lets the guitars slowly fade out, only to suddenly drift into the closing moments of Mirrored’s “Tonto.” It’s a pleasant surprise after a few too many minutes of the same thing.
La Di Da Di sounds like the trio version of Battles have decided exactly what they want to do as a band. This is a confident record that focuses on beat and melody, while still allowing the group space to throw in other musical ideas. But they seem to have found their center, and it makes Gloss Drop seem retroactively like a bit of a mishmash. A long Gloss Drop tour plus an extended break for the members’ other projects seems to have given them time to figure out what works best for them in Battles. Some fans will really appreciate this, but I expect others will miss the slightly messy experimentation of Gloss Drop, while still others will always hold up Mirrored as the best version of the band. I’m not prepared to say La Di Da Di is Battles’ best work, but its focused style sounds like an indication that the band is prepared to keep at it for the long haul.