Addition by Subtraction
Battles' Math Rock Isn't by the Numbers
Jason Frank Rothenberg
Bill Bruford once remarked that King Crimson—for whom he used to drum in the 1970s—were probably the only band that could play in 17/8 time and still stay in five-star hotels.
Brooklyn-based group Battles haven't quite reached that level of popularity, but for a math-rock outfit whose music surges in similarly wonky time signatures, they've garnered a high profile—along with praise from another progressive-music icon, Brian Eno ("When I saw Battles, I thought, 'Damn! Why didn't I think of that?!'").
Eno isn't the only one enamored of Battles. Their 2007 debut album, Mirrored (on Warp Records), stands as one of the decade's landmark rock releases. Members Ian Williams (guitar, keyboards), Tyondai Braxton (guitar, vocals), Dave Konopka (bass, guitar, effects), and John Stanier (drums) optimized the organic/synthetic interface both on record and onstage, executing complex, kinetic songs with both phenomenal instrumental dexterity and on-the-fly digital manipulations.
In a show review from the Mirrored tour, I described Battles as "an advanced race of sonic geometrists, conceiving impossibly intricate aural angles and trajectories at breakneck velocity and convulsive power. At times, Battles seemed to be composing thrilling car-chase themes for MENSA members, insanely rapid gamelan pieces for fans of 1980s King Crimson, or avant-garde Looney Toons for those who find Carl Stalling's work to be too sedate." A later performance at the 2008 Bumbershoot festival somehow eclipsed that show. Normally taciturn music obsessives were claiming Battles to be the future of rock.
Unfortunately, Battles didn't seize that momentum. While recording Mirrored's follow-up, Braxton left to pursue a solo career. The band members—who had already blown their deadline with Warp—decided to scrap all the material they'd cut with Ty and start anew as a trio. On the bright side, they reasoned, they avoided laboring on the dreaded sophomore-slump full-length.
"Our reaction [to Braxton's departure] was very practical," Williams says by phone from Brooklyn, where he's walking around while eating pizza. "We'd been in the studio for a while and we were already making this record and there were already lots of obstacles, as there are with any large-scale project in your life. Okay, he's gone. It was an instinctual, survivalist response by us. We're on a mountain, it's snowing: How do we get to the lodge for safety?"
Battles—ever the acute math rockers—looked at the loss as a chance for addition by subtraction. "Ty complained about a lack of inspiration on writing the instrumentation for this record," Williams says. "He was thinking more of a lead-singer role. To some degree, it was easier to take him out of the record because he was mostly singing. It was important to us that the record that's coming out is a reflection of who we are at the moment, not what we used to be."
With Braxton gone, Battles simplified and clarified their songwriting on the forthcoming Gloss Drop. "In our band," Williams notes, "if somebody has a Hawaiian surf-guitar part, the other guy would want to play a heavy-metal guitar part, just to sabotage the other's intention. A delicate balance of that is good, because it makes things more complex, but it can go too far. We didn't feel the need to obfuscate things with layers of complexity that ultimately mean you don't need to know what the hell's going on in the song. We just wanted to lay the songs bare."
As replacements for Braxton's loopy, pitched-up vocalizing, Battles enlisted four vastly different guest singers for Gloss Drop: Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, Chilean techno producer Matias Aguayo, Boredoms' frontmaniac Yamantaka Eye, and Gary Numan. The latter emotes for all he's worth on "My Machines," a roiling, up-tempo juggernaut of robust rhythms and feral bass growls. Eye babbles with panache on "Sundome," a woozy fantasia that ratchets up into a weird, stomping processional. Gloss Drop's first single, the oddly accessible "Ice Cream," features Aguayo's quirky Spanish chants bouncing over the sort of labyrinthine vibrancy and baffling intricacy that marked Mirrored. The LP peaks on "Wall Street," a Rube Goldberg machinelike prog-techno hybrid that's as insanely chaotic and volatile as the stock market.
Stock market. Numbers. Math. Rock. Oh, shit. "I don't like that term," Williams admits, though not angrily. "There are some odd time signatures [in our music], but I think we're more like power minimalism or something. We're repeating phrases that hit you on the head. It has a dumb simpleness to it. It's got nothing to do with the feeling you get when you shift time signatures; it's more about the hitting over the head." Sometimes in 17/8 time, even.