Music is finally evolving faster than the humanity that spawns it. It's hard to hear Mirrored and not imagine a massive mainframe in some secret mountain bunker—WarGames' WOPR, perhaps—spiraling out these clanging melodies and arithmetic rhythms as the codex to an impossible equation. At least at first listen; repeat visits reveal deeply embedded patterns and discrete movements, a superliminal fractal logic that twists these man-machine compositions into more than the sum of their parts. And that adds up to the most human element of all: humor. Post-meta double-helix droid-rock never sounded so funny.
Battles came together in 2003, initially a dark, experimental supergroup with former Helmet drummer John Stanier, guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton, and guitarists Dave Konopka (ex-Lynx) and Ian Williams (ex-Don Caballero). Helmet's metal-press shockwave carries over a bit, but here Stanier is as concerned with inflection as power. Braxton, meanwhile, son of avant-garde jazz composer Anthony Braxton, brings his father's miraculous unconventionality, stabbing at his guitar with single thrusts, burrowing into songs, while Williams and Konopka meticulously echo and braid each other's syncopated riffs. Truth: With all the sonic recycling and looping, it's actually pretty hard to tell who does what at any given moment, though Stanier's incandescent high-hatting is the bulb around which the other instruments swarm and weave. Also, it's Braxton's voice that appears mid-momentum, chanting robo-munchkin jive over the seven minutes of 23rd-century classic rock on "Atlas," and it's his demigodly declarations over time-warped guitars, nu-classical keys, and anxious percussion on "Rainbow." Those filtered vocal abstractions—plus the stretching of tones and rhythms like Silly Putty, the turning inside out of musical space—are collectively so unexpected and unprecedented that they're freakin' hilarious. Make no mistake—this is serious music, perhaps even "difficult," but it's also playful in a way Battles' earlier EPs hardly hinted at. The difficulty only arises from the novelty. Like most experiments in pure creation, this music feels scarily self-aware, already outgrowing the intent of its masters. JONATHAN ZWICKEL
(Arts and Crafts)
Like other bands that have spun off from the orbit of the Montreal record label Arts and Crafts (Stars, Broken Social Scene, the Dears, etc.), Young Galaxy piles up boy/girl harmonies, warm keyboards, and twinkly, tremoloed guitars in service of an inexhaustible earnestness. Their first full-length album is a blurry, hazy lovefest, the way the Smiths or the Cure would play it if they'd known anything about girls. Plus, there's a romantic couple at the center of the band (plus 10 indie bonus points): Catherine McCandless, a singer whose voice could be set on stun, though she holds back on most songs, and her longtime partner, Stephen Ramsay, a former touring guitarist for the similarly cosmic pop prophets Stars.
Considering their roots, the band's postreligious veneration of romantic love doesn't come as a surprise, nor does their attempt to capture something of the universe/al in the whole record's aesthetic. Young Galaxy is teeming with holy language: "grace," "wailing wall," "lazy religion," "oh Lord," "God knows." The digipak is made to look like a worn LP jacket (timeless!), the choruses lay the multitracked vocals on thick (communal!), and everything is bathed in reverb for good measure (ethereal!). The strength and weakness of bands like Young Galaxy is the obvious way they believe in music. The vast ambition of the album makes it feel like something reaching out to save the world. "The Alchemy Between Us" brings the record to a towering, MBV-like instrumental climax, trancelike and unironic. Some will find it transcendent and satisfying; some, too reverent to be any fun. This is not cutesy-wootsy stuff; it's rock 'n' roll at its grandest and most sublime. JOEL HARTSE
Young Galaxy play Sat June 9 at the Crocodile, 9 pm, $13 adv/$15 DOS, 21+.
On paper, Von Südenfed appear impossibly obscure. A pairing of experimental electronic producers Mouse on Mars and Mark E. Smith, the legendary punk artist and provocateur behind the Fall, the supergroup seem like a strange side project that would merely appeal to the two acts' respective cults.
Von Südenfed exert an appeal beyond obsessives, however. Tromatic Reflexxions finds Mouse on Mars and Smith in remarkable sync, the equivalent of a witty pub poet backed by a gleefully mischievous electronic orchestra. There is "Chicken Yiamas," which opens with the sound of an acoustic guitar before the German producers throw in a backbeat that slowly goes haywire, with buzz-saw noises shooting off everywhere. "The Rhinohead" jumps out with hand claps and a steady backbeat that swings like 1960s London, full of psychedelic fuzz.
While sonically imaginative, Smith's vocals are mostly impenetrable. On "Flooded" he speaks in a hilarious leer: "I'm the DJ tonight/I'm the disc jockey tonight/Some guy shows up, he says he's the DJ tonight... But I'm the DJ tonight." On other songs, only shards of words leap out, such as the "strange and mysterious sound" of "Serious Brainskin," and "mazel tov" on "Duckrog."
Much of Tromatic Reflexxions is super funky. At one point, Mouse on Mars hurls a vocal snippet of James Brown shouting "Get Down!" right into a storm of rapid-fire drums as Smith incants haunted phrasings like Liquid Liquid. Overall, the album deserves a cherished place alongside your collection of LCD Soundsystem 7-inch singles. (Though the famously combative Smith may object to be included among such company. In the May issue of the Wire, he dismissed LCD auteur James Murphy as "just some New York arsehole.") MOSI REEVES
While moving from Seattle to Portland earlier this year, songwriter Laura Veirs must've spent a lot of time staring out her passenger-side window at the Pacific, because this album is downright obsessed with all things oceanic. From the Loch Ness monster–ish creature in the cover art to lyrics about sailing, swimming, and making out with mermen, Veirs has clearly found her metaphor. It's a fitting one to navigate the emotional range she tackles through songs varying in mood from tempestuous to tranquil to epic.
Veirs, a former geology student, picks up where her last album, Year of Meteors, left off, still looking to Mama Nature for the imagery upon which to project her earnestly voiced indie pop. While Meteors took place in caves, atop mountains, and among the stars, this album is populated by nightingales, butterflies, and sea serpents. Saltbreakers reads a lot like a children's fable on the surface, but Veirs's grown-up angst churns just below sea level.
It begins apologetically, the opening track perhaps a rueful reflection on a relationship curdled by emotional defenses ("Pink Light"), while a few songs later, Veirs flirts with a full-blown love ballad (the standout "Drink Deep"). On "To the Country," strings lend a world-music bent, and producer Tucker Martine fills out the space between Veirs's voice, the viola, and Bill Frisell's guitar cameo with a ghostly triple-tracked recording of a small choir, captured at Johnny Cash's cabin-cum-studio in Tennessee (the rest of "Saltbreakers" was recorded locally).
In a decade when indie releases are all but drenched in irony, it's tempting to recoil from an album like this one, in which choirs, hand claps, and songs about mythical creatures could sound precious and wide-eyed. But Veirs's disarming emotional honesty and imperfectly pretty voice keep the record from feeling trite. Cheers to Veirs for hopefully ushering in a new era of sincerity. MAYA KROTH
Laura Veirs and the Saltbreakers play Fri June 8 at the Triple Door, 7:30 and 10:30 pm, $15, late show 21+.
Ellen Allien and Apparat's Orchestra of Bubbles was one of the best electronic albums of last year, a happy wedding of Allien's vocal techno, Apparat's refined glitch, and a wealth of acoustic instrumentation.
Allien handled the bulk of the vocal duties on Bubbles, with Apparat chopping her tuneful voice into tasteful bits. The exception, "Leave Me Alone," found Apparat (aka Shitkatapult founder Sascha Ring) singing on the album's only great pop song, and that success seems to have informed his latest solo record, Walls.
Walls is still full of the same warm acoustics, bright strings, and tinkling synths as Bubbles, but it's the singing that really stands out.
Vocals aren't exactly a new sonic element for Apparat—he's been incorporating them, diced up or raw, since at least the Silizium EP. But Walls guest vocalist Raz Ohara pulls a kind of Jamie Lidell–esque future soul on songs like "Hailin from the Edge," "Holdon," and "Over and Over," and it doesn't really do the album many favors. The trite (or possibly just ESL) spoken word and overwrought torch singing on the latter are especially difficult.
The vocals aren't all bad. Ring's falsetto on "Arcadia" fades in and out of the song's ethereal mix to great effect, "Limelight" effectively cuts and warps his voice à la Bubbles' "Do Not Break," and "You Don't Know Me" contains some ghostly moans that I'm still not sure are human. Even Ohara's restrained speak/singing and soaring chorus are a nice touch on the joyously erupting "Headup" (the quasi-rapping of the song's conclusion, maybe less so).
The instrumental tracks—"Not a Number," "Useless Information," "Fractales" parts I and II—are gorgeous, of course, more of the kind of next-level minisymphonies that are going to cost Shitkatapult its crap-flinging name. But when the vocals are bad, they mar a record that would otherwise be Apparat's finest solo work to date. ERIC GRANDY
Imagine walking along a beach in the dark—it's warm, the sand feels nice on your bare feet, the water looks beautiful with the moon shining in streams along its surface, but you can't help but wish someone else were there with you. That sense of longing and loneliness dominates Mice Parade's beautiful and ethereal new self-titled album. Even when the tunes reach their most uplifting, as in "The Last Ten Homes," the lyrics bring you back to the water and the reminder that something is missing: "The bitter sea likes to be hauntingly lonely/Making it all the worse to lose a friend."
The ghostly "Double Dolphins on the Nickel" is like wandering through a foreign but lucid dream, thanks to the tiny, otherworldly guest vocals of Múm's Kristin Anna Valtysdottir. The songwriting on the album is impeccable, and the vibraphones and keyboards backing the acoustic guitars are lush and absorbing. When a thick hum of distortion fills in the background, the songs become like My Bloody Valentine covers of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Perhaps the most striking element of the band is the frantic yet perfectly timed rhythm of the drumming, which brings much-needed movement and energy to what could otherwise be sad, lifeless tunes. Live, Mice Parade use two drum kits as well as a host of other instruments to properly translate the album to the stage. Yet as strong and full as the album is, its songs are ultimately sad and unsettling, always arms length rather than close embrace. JEFF KIRBY
Everything Is a Miracle NothingIs a Miracle Everything Is
Kickball are everything that is vibrant and exciting about DIY music. Their fourth release, Everything Is a Miracle Nothing Is a Miracle Everything Is—available through the band's MySpace and www.houseopolisrecords.com—is an indie gem, equally melodic and danceable, that captures the endearingly awkward energy the Olympia trio bring live to living rooms and small clubs across the country.
There is something elementally "Washington" about Kickball's sound. They vaguely hark back to Long Drive–era Modest Mouse, something organic the band emits that is instinctively easy to understand and embrace. Hearing their songs for the first time is like walking down a trail and unconsciously knowing which way to turn when it forks.
Singer Jacob Wilson's voice belts and strains, occasionally breaking pitch but in a way that only strengthens his intensity. Lyrical concepts from previous albums, such as storms and bears, are brought back, entwining the band with the majestic outdoors that surround them: "I did all that I could to protect you from harm/Tattoo the great bear on your arm." The musicianship is solid and interesting, and even when the beeping of a telephone is used as an instrument it doesn't seem out of place. The album's standout track, "Fight," features verses that beg to be chanted along with the band: "If you fight, it's automatically a fight/If you don't believe in ghosts, you won't see ghosts/If you build a house at the beach, it's automatically a beach house." Right now, Kickball are the kind of band you want to keep secret, even though you know how much people would love them if given the chance. JEFF KIRBY