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War on Wusses 

Battles assaults formulas, ear drums

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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Battles' new record, Mirrored, is unlike any other album you're likely to hear this year, or maybe any year. Something of an indie supergroup, the New York quartet comprises Ian Williams (Don Caballero, Storm and Stress), Dave Konopka (Lynx), John Stanier (Tomahawk, Helmet), and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton (son of avant-garde jazz legend Anthony Braxton, and a composer in his own right). The foursome is bent on nothing less than reinventing the architecture of rock, starting from the ground up.

Even before you press play, you can tell this isn't your typical math-rock combo. The glossy fold-out poster that comes with the disc depicts the band's vast stage setup, and it's a shitload of gear: keyboards, guitars, piles of digital effects, and cables snaking all over like the guts of an early supercomputer. Williams and Braxton each pull double duty on guitar and keyboard, often playing both at the same time. (In Don Cab, Williams famously played guitar with both hands on the neck; he now plays one-handed, using the other for the keyboard.) Konopka, more conventionally, alternates between bass and guitar. Stanier, in direct defiance of the octopus-armed math-rock drummer cliché, lays down solid, minimalist beats on a modest four-piece kit, augmented only by hi-hats, and a lone cymbal towering three feet above the drums.

But the most literal symbol of Battles' wall of sound is its solid wall of amplifiers, some two dozen speakers total. This huge array of wattage is the key to Battles' methodology; physically imposing, sure, but also carefully interconnected. "Each person has two amps — one for the live instrument, one for loops," explains Williams, "and John has an amp behind him, so he can play along with the loops." Band plus gear form a literal circuit: The three frontmen play live parts, loop them with effect pedals, then everyone plays to the looped phrases, some of which get fed back into the system. Williams describes it as "circular feedback."

The results are organic and visceral: The line between man and machine is blurred, constantly built, and then fucked with. In "Atlas," a deconstructed glam beat forms the foundation of a heavy fugue in which guitars mimic synthesizers and vice versa. Riding a pulsing matrix of rhythm and noise, Braxton's alien, pitch-shifted vocals sound like Can singer Damo Suzuki leading an LSD parade in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

Battles began in 2002, with Williams and Braxton getting together to jam and exchange ideas. "I came to one of Ty's solo shows in New York, and we talked afterwards, and then we started going to see each other play," explains Williams. "It occurred to me he was doing cool stuff." Braxton was using guitar, keyboards, and loops in his solo work. The two guitarists' mutual interest in extended guitar techniques jibed well with each's highly unorthodox playing style. By the end of 2003 their as-yet-unnamed collaboration had begun to gel; the following year Williams asked Konopka and Stanier to join up. "From that point on, it was us just trying to learn the rules of what it was," says Williams.

Battles' Tras EP and EP C were released in June 2004. The following year, the group toured with Prefuse 73 in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, eventually attracting the attention of Warp, which reissued the two EPs together as the EP C/B album in early 2006. Around this time, the band began work on Mirrored, which would take about a year of off-and-on writing between tours. "We had a good relationship with [the studio engineers] — they were really patient with us, 'cause we can be perfectionists."

You'd have to be a perfectionist to come up with an instrumental framework as elaborate as that of Battles, much less pull it off without venturing into Emerson, Lake and Palmer mega-wank territory. But Mirrored works, as head-banging futurist prog for both the mathletes in the front of the class, and the stoners in the back.

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J. Niimi

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