It's strange taking on a profile of a band so steeped in a musical language with which you were once not just fluent but even obsessed. I would have adored New York City rockers Battles when I was 19, their power-through-precision métier appealing to my penchant for all things prog and post, the words "ex-Helmet drummer" (that would be the band's John Stanier) acting as foolproof elixir. But if I'm not so easily impressed by intensity and general hugeness these days, that only makes my response to the evident dynamism on Mirrored (Warp) seem all the more incontestable.
Not that anyone ever doubted Battles' credentials: in the school of rock, these guys are definitely PhDs. Beyond Stanier's heavy days with Helmet, Ian Williams's guitar tapping was a cornerstone of Don Caballero's pioneering math rock. Guitarist Dave Konopka put in time with Lynx. Multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton still gets tied to his dad avant-garde jazz colossus Anthony Braxton though it's worth noting he's done lots of compelling work on his own, including 2002's History That Has No Effect (JMZ).
There's plenty of firepower here, though Mirrored doesn't sound like the work of a typical, ego-fueled supergroup. Reflecting on the ensemble's beginnings in 2003, Williams relates, "It was about starting from scratch rather than having it be the guy from Helmet doing what he's supposed to do and the guy from Don Cab doing what he's supposed to do and so on." Battles' music is certainly cohesive, to the point of being migraine inducing. Williams is on the road between shows in Charlotte, NC, and Atlanta when we talk, and he sounds a bit mystified that some people still view Battles as a side project. "The reality is this band has taken up all of our time these past few years."
Part of this lingering getting-to-know-you talk clearly has to do with the group's measured ascent: Battles took four years to release their first album, after all. While Williams says that part of why Mirrored took so long is simply a matter of the logistics of England's Warp Records repackaging the band's 2004 EPs EP C (Monitor) and EP B (Dim Mak) it's clear that there were designs to build from the ground up. "One thing about the EPs was that they originally came out in the States on three separate small indie labels, and it took people a while to find out about it, and that was a conscious thing ... just to have it be more word-of-mouth," Williams explains. "Another purpose of taking our time was in wanting to find our own sound, our own reason for being a band."
That sound fractal, propulsive, profoundly stimulated is mapped out in Mirrored's opening minutes. A tightly wound snare part rides the rails of muted guitar runs before "Race: In" blooms into a giant, Tortoise-size crescendo. The quartet then doubles back on the core rhythmic elements, which are projected through a half-dozen modes during the song's five prismatic minutes. The video for the full-length's glam-inflected single, "Atlas," offers a spot-on visual approximation: the band members play in a mirrored cube, their bobbing, duplicated forms angling in on one another as their respective parts interlock in so many different combinations.
"I guess it is a tension between enjoying far-out music that can sound inaccessible ... but at the same time not thinking it should be unnecessarily difficult," Williams says of Battles' strategy. "I think our approach is that there's no reason it shouldn't hit you on a primal level ...
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