Friday, 28 November 2008


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Will Langland Reviews Battles

I find it disappointing that nubile and untainted reviewers should, in this day and age, feel that it is their place to unerringly praise the music they listen to. One look at Hullfire will tell you that every CD is fantastic and every artist has something new, or improved, or will make your whites whiter – a perfect promise, really, for an industry that has become boring and saccharine. So many reviews read like some sleazy grey PR company has their fingers up the writer's arse, working them like a puppet in a pantomime of appreciation. It's hard to make a discerning judgement on what you want to buy (or, let's face it, steal) when a page of “criticism” is overwhelmingly positive.

I am sick to the teeth of reading terrible music reviews. How many music reviewers praise an album that they never listen to again, or even want to? Sadly, I too must confess a guilty plea to this crime. I remember a particularly nice review I wrote of My Device, if only because they reminded me so much of a band that truly warrants praise – Battles. While it is hard to argue that music shouldn't be enjoyable I increasingly find that amateur reviewers don't understand that music can be enjoyable for being cerebral. Music can dance across your synapses. Music can impress you for its technicality and innovation. Sheer mindless pleasure is why Take That are good. Profound, cerebral pleasure is why Battles are good.

How many times have you listened to a band that truly understand not just how their instruments work, but how their bandmates instruments work? How many times have you heard a band that have a creative vision that they all understand? My god! What a rare and incredible combination. The Sugarbabes know how to sing and a producer, songwriter, lyricist and (dare I mention them) mastering company do the rest, though the loudness war is another topic for another day. As if Keisha Buchanen knows what a polyrhythm is. Hell, as if Britney Spears knows what a polyrhythm is – as if she knows who Aphex Twin is – and Womanizer has that single brilliant moment of electronic drumwork (on “lollipop”) that sounds remarkably like a nod to him despite basically being yet another cover of Personal Jesus.

Thankyou, Battles. I intend to finally write a good review for a band that actually deserves a good review. Thankyou for knowing what a damn polyrhythm is, then writing an entire album so devilishly clever that I have no idea what the time signature is on half the tracks.

Battles are a math-rock band, and while I'd normally finish this sentence with the phrase “from x”, I can't, because all four of them toured extensively with bands before being signed to the British Warp Records. I can go as local as “America”. Guitarist Ian Williams is a veteran of Don Caballero and Strom & Stress, and regularly finger-taps a guitar while playing a keyboard. Dave Konopka does something similar. Vocalist and keyboardist (and whatever he feels like playing) Tyondai Braxton is the son of an avant-garde jazz musician, and it shows. Drummer John Stainer is from Helmet, and has the absurd gimmick of putting his crash cymbal on a very, very tall stand, as if it symbolises everything Battles isn't, and he must be physically forced to think twice about using it in their music.

Math-rock is one of those genres that sounds like someone made it up to look pretentious and sound complicated. It is. It's based around mashing up riffs in different time signatures on loop pedals then having your drummer try and work out where the beat's supposed to go. And then add effects. Having seen Battles at the BBC's Electric Proms, I can absolutely vouch for Stainer's skill as a drummer, and quite frankly, his endurance. On debut album Mirrored you'd be forgiven for thinking that each track was recorded between long periods of fatigue, where Stainer lies in some sort of cell, gaunt and dying, until he can muster the strength to play another track. It's not. They can, and do, play the entire album live, with Stainer hammering away on that ludicrous cymbal. On tracks like Tij Stainer's work is truly epic, somehow switching signatures and complimenting the other instruments in a way that can only come from hours and hours of rehearsal on a Captain-Beefheart-locked-in-an-apartment-like-a-cult-for-8-months level of dedication. You almost feel sorry for the man. And the live experience really is something special with Battles. Considering the variety and precise nature of the album's sound and the technical difficulty of having three people on loop pedals – pedals that don't automatically synchronise the speed of their loops – seeing it done live is like watching a sculptor make the statue in front of you. For once in music there's not only innovation but sheer and determined technical majesty.

When I first heard Mirrored I was certain that it must have been made on a computer. I thought that it had to be a load of guys in a basement, recording a sample, fiddling with it, turning knobs on thousands of strange pieces of equipment, tinkering and fiddling to fit the sound they wanted. Apart from fairly straightforward songs like Atlas and Leyendecker, possibly disregarding the vocal element, the album is full of tracks with elements that feel like they must have been altered or dragged about to stay in time. The plodding Bad Trails feels like a recording of some weird ambient hangar with bits stuck on top. Battles' punchline is essentially that there was no dragging and dropping, copy-pasting or pitch correction in Protools. I once heard someone say that Battles sounds like a load of kids broke into a shop full of music equipment and recorded themselves fucking about. They were half right. Battles is four obscenely talented men with mad, genre-defining ideas breaking into a shop full of music equipment recording themselves fucking about – and it's just that – recording. The band doesn't need a computer to make their music. The computer's just an ear to them. All they need is them and a ton of weird electronic gizmos. The album art, in fact, is the equipment they used to make the album in a huge one-way-mirrored box.

In the end, while Atlas and Leyendecker may be the “straightforward” songs, it's the longer and more progressive pieces such as Tonto, Rainbow and Tij that mark Mirrored's territory. It's these tracks that are the band's muscle, that show how they work and really impress the listener, both with their pacing and their skill. When you find yourself obsessing over the rhythm and effects Ian Williams is using in looping the sound of him scratching muted guitar strings, then get surprised because the drums have been building subtly and you didn't notice, then you've found the essence of Battles. And for god's sake, try not to get sucked into working out the time signature on every instrument. You'll go John Nash.


T A Young said...

I totally disagree with Langland. Music doesn't need to be complicated to be fun. He's basically being a massive snob. Pop is about enjoyment and I'd much rather go out and listen to Womanizer than bleepy crap that he doesn't even know when to tap his foot to. I guess in his world it's not okay to like anything ever.

Anonymous said...

I agree with turville Young. I would much rather go out and listen to songs like 'Soldier boy' than listen to battles. But then I would also rather get a real respone to my article than faking my own one....

Anonymous said...

I'd rather proofread my comments.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather proofread your mum.