Battles
EP C / B EP
2004 / 2006
B



battles has a habit of drawing an Escher-like maze with little more than four lines. On “B+T,” the avant-rock quartet’s three guitarists seemingly play no more than one riff each, where every note sounds laser-cut and shaven off another song. The lead melody is upbeat, abstract, and contorted enough that it seems to be tell listeners riddles. Piece together all of the interlocked, fragmented melodies with the dribbling beats that prevent the music from floating off the face of the earth and you’ve got that image of Escher’s lizards seamlessly moving out of the drawing, walking around the desk and then sinking back into the illustration. The execution also makes for uneasy listening as the mind is forced to pay attention to every microscopic detail that grab the ear at once. Nonetheless, Battles produced the first rock sound I’ve heard that can seem digitally tweaked without the band touching a computer or sampler. It made sense that such a futuristic band would be signed by Warp last December.

Battles earned itself a cult following two years ago with its handful of EPs released on various labels. The record covers were adorned with stark photographs of pastoral fields—as if to hit the eye equally with tranquility and raw wilderness. Such imagery reflected the intense nature of the music—melodies fragile enough to break off a tree, riffs and rhythms jagged to the skin that are much like walking barefoot across a gnarled field, and rhythm changes that cut through like delta winds. It is tempting to stamp this music as a version of “math-rock,” yet the band never got hung-up on mangled time signatures and jumbled riffs. Concocting that sound are esteemed vets avant-guitar soloist Tyondai Braxton, Ian Williams (Don Caballero, Storm & Stress), David Konopka (Lynx), and almighty drummer John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk).

As Warp is planning to release the band’s first album later this year, the label has recently reissued their B,C and Tras EPs on one convenient disc. The music has not aged at all in the two years since their release, and seems more necessary than ever in a time when few forward-thinkers grace the modern rock radio. However, Battles is much too abstract and challenging to warrant any airplay. On their 12-minute, eponymous “Bttls,” the band spends 10 minutes waking up—a soft guitar drone hides in a shadow while guitar pickup snaps (heard when pressing a string directly on the guitar’s electric pickup) erratically bounce between the stereo channels. Scattered notes later drizzle in before Stanier’s backwards-looped cymbals break several bones. Eerily enough, the song ends with looming, Eno-esque murmurs. Just as radical is the assault of “Dance,” where a fumbling thud that resembles a pair of shoes tossing in a dryer leads the band with Stanier frenetically smacking that washing machine to behave itself while the choppy electric piano notes that ring out seem to be that machine’s response. Elsewhere, that same piano dangles on a tie-rope in the mid-tempo number, “Hi/Lo,” while it delivers a jingle so cheerful that one expects a complete discord to follow in the gentle, microtone ballad, “UW.” Warp’s reissue is also quite helpful as the band separated different versions of two songs among their EPs. The first version of “Ipt” tip-toes along to tightly wound snare beats and clench-fisted riffs that all loop in an uncanny circular rhythm, while the song’s second version has Stanier’s drums getting violently looped backwards and forwards in creating an antigravity effect. The three versions of “Tras” were broken up across all three EPs. “Tras 2” is striking for how each of its muttered notes seem to be communicating to each other like artificial intelligences, while “Tras 3” is one guitar melody drenched in reverb and enough digital effects to sink it underwater.

Battles’ Pointillist-rock can grow redundant and formulaic at times, while a few of their songs seem to be unfinished sketches rather than paintings. However, the band still clearly has more blank space on the canvas to fill, and gives little idea of where they will go next. Here’s hoping that sequel is endless.


Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-02-10
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