In 2007, after I absorbed Mirrored and saw the group perform in Los Angeles on the tour supporting that album, I decided that Battles were the future of rock. In a review written for OC Weekly that year, I called Battles "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 Tunes for those who find Carl Stalling's work to be too sedate." Also, Brian Eno is a Battles fan, and cosigns don't come much loftier than that.
So how are Battles doing 12 years after that landmark tour and record? Pretty damned good, although the quartet they were then has dwindled to the duo of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier. Tyondai Braxton departed in 2010 before sophomore album Gloss Drop was released, while bassist Dave Konopka left in 2018.
"It was more work on my end to finish the record, just because there was more sonic ground for me to cover," Williams said in an e-mail interview. "I spent a lot of time alone in our rehearsal studio and played with sound toys. But in some ways, it was a much easier record to make. Because our musicality isn't a direct 'musician plays note here,' but it's wrapped up with technical needs of machines and it was just easier to coordinate everything, because there wasn't a whole other universe going on with Dave's loop pedals."
Despite these tough losses, Battles have come back with Juice B Crypts, their best album since Mirrored. They proved themselves to be omnivorous collaborators on Gloss Drop, adapting their complex ideas to a wildly diverse array of artists, and that principle enhances the new album.
On Juice B Crypts, Williams said, "I wasn't afraid of the challenge to make music in a pop format, but I wanted to make it as extreme and crazy as possible at the same time."
It's a tribute to Battles' adventurous spirit that their selection of conspirators encompasses so much variation. New York singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos belts out vibrant soul shouts over the shrill, urgent electro-rock of "They Played It Twice"; Yes vocalist Jon Anderson (?!) flexes his angelic prog-rock cords over the Stereolab-on-steroids, origami funk of "Sugar Foot," augmented by Taipei psych-rockers Prairie WWWW; Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler spits velvety, cool bars about a young hustler over discombobulated boom-bap on "Izm"; Tune-Yards coos enigmatically on the zanily futuristic anti-dance-pop of the two-part "Last Supper on Shasta"; and last but most, Liquid Liquid vocalist Sal Principato expresses end-times desperation on the bombastic and spasmodic "Titanium 2 Step," as Stanier slaps out some of the hardest, heaviest, and most intricate beats of 2019.
The tracks on Juice B Crypts featuring just Williams and Stanier find ingenious ways to fuse math-rock, abstract electronica, and dance music. "Ambulance" sounds like some new strain of maximalist techno as produced by Boredoms and Magma. The insane title track carries a Squarepusher-esque air of rhythmic hysteria—mad drum & bass in a packed arcade.
If Juice B Crypts proves anything, it's that rock needs to mutate and go off on surprising tangents if it wants to keep sounding vital. Battles' hybrid energy shows no signs of diminishing, even as their lineup does.