Battles, the New York math-rock band of grandfathered musicians that trade in surprisingly melodic muscularity, have released a more-than-excitement-generating record in Mirrrored — they’ve released an album that more than the critics will remember as one of the best of the year. In fact, it’s likely to appeal to the more academically-oriented among indie rock listeners as well as to those who like their rock music to have a visceral effect.
Is Battles really an indie rock supergroup? In the right circles these names have some cachet — John Stanier, Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, Tyondai Braxton — and there’s no doubt the quality of the musicianship contributes to the critical praise the group receives. But I’d like to argue that, even if you’re not familiar with these names or the bands with which they’ve been associated in the past (Helmet, Don Caballero, Lynx), the music Battles are making deserves to be heard, and respected. The band’s basic jumping-off-point is late ’90s math rock, but just saying that makes it difficult to explain how the music feels so current. Especially on Mirrored they’ve been compared to Animal Collective. That was just a reaction to the introduction of Braxton’s processed-to-completion vocals on Mirrored. But vocal treatment on its own’s nothing new, either. Rather, it’s the amalgamation of carefully-plotted ferocity and surprisingly light-hearted melody (hallmark of modern indie rock) that really shouts We matter, now.
The whole album, from the slow-building line-on-clashing-line of “Race: In” to “Race: Out”, with its inverse treatment of the same whistling melody, is intricately arranged and flawlessly pieced together. Here the band’s playing with the technology/live band interface, constantly reminding us of the organic basis of passion while inviting us to robot it up. So rocking out to the hulking crescendos of “Tij” is fun, but, listening to the song you’re also reminded clearly of the electronic manipulations necessary to produce that tight and intricately-woven sound. The hiccuping loop of vocal is repeated slightly out of time with the guitar hook, and despite the stops and starts, never quite coalesces. The whole effect is one of on-edgeness, strangely compelling despite the obvious care with which it was constructed.”Axis” seems an unlikely indie club hit, but then you hear the melody. Wait, heavy prog-rock bands aren’t supposed to love hulking AC/DC riffs, right? Even judging from their early output Battles may have agreed with you, but not so now.
One of the best things about the album, even above this technology/human passion marriage and the surprising vein of melody it throws up, is that Battles don’t take themselves too seriously. It actually widens the appeal of the band enormously, to the extent that even if you don’t fancy yourself much of a math-rock person, there’s still a lot here to interest you. “Tonto” rocks, hard, but about four minutes in, a pentatonic synth-line pops out with the glee of a child learning “Chopsticks” at the piano. The theme’s expanded into cacophonic guitar treatment immediately, but the fact the group throws in these wacky threads of melody make listening to Mirrored an unexpected pleasure. “Bad Trails” slides through vocal hills and valleys to the accompaniment of shimmering guitars that cut in and out seemingly at random — the continual, slight changes in the music keep you continually turning your head. “Ddiamondd”’s chattering vocals recall the Futureheads with more mechanical guitars.
In the week or so since it’s been out, Mirrored has already won over some new fans, I’m guessing. They certainly won over me. Their small packets of vice-tight, time signature-battling rhythms, pinging guitars and processed vocals are placed next to each other in a virtuosic arrangement — never predictable, yet still revealing the muscular groove that propels you to shout, “Yeah”. Even if you’re not much of a cerebral-rock person, take a chance with this one — it pays off.