Battles' music is uncanny, unprecedented. In the right hands, a few basic components—guitars, bass, synths, drums—plus a Mission Control Center's worth of digital gear, yield classic rock for the 23rd century.
"I think of our setup to be a garage band of 2007," says Ian Williams, one of Battles' three guitarists. "In terms of the equipment we're using, you have the rock-n-roll drum set, you have eight guitar amplifiers behind us onstage, but at the same time you have all the little tricks and doodads that any kid can go to Guitar Center and buy."
Williams is right—four guys jamming in a garage no longer need be just four guys jamming in a garage. Technology has removed so many constraints on the musician that, confronted with endless possibilities, some retreat into self-imposed limitations or narrowly defined genres; others veer into abstract digital fantasy. Battles take a third route: Accelerate the marriage between man and machine.
It's hard to hear Battles—a quartet of three multitasking guitarist/keyboardist/effects wizards and one supremely badass drummer—and not imagine their warped melodies and twisted rhythms being beamed from another planet. The stuff is so wildly, insistently different that words go dumb and cliché sets in: It's futuristic, it's more than the sum of its parts, it's... What the hell is it?
The foundation is drummer John Stanier. Formerly of alt-metal technicians Helmet, Stanier is propulsive and lock-step, the pounding heart of a band that's part machine—Guitarist Williams (of math-rock cult favorites Don Caballero), guitarist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton, and guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka all augment their sounds with digital loops and electronic tweakery. The result is precise and brainy but aggressive, prog-funk played by cyborgs, fist-pumping arena rock for robots. And it erupts onstage.
"It's live, it's human, it's sloppy," Williams says of Battles' shows, "and it's sort of circumstantial." Live looping of ambient sounds—the bass, the crowd—results in an organically grown, artificially enhanced flavor that's different every night.
"Like if someone is screaming really loud when Tyondai sets the beatbox loop for the song 'Atlas,'" Williams says. "Sometimes a person's yell will get caught in the microphone—'Yeah!'—and then, well, it's in there—'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' But you can use it, and it becomes part of the song. It makes sense. It becomes realer than real."
Critics have pointed out similarities in rhythmic structure between "Atlas" and Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People" and Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Parts 1 & 2." The similarity is there—because all three songs are built from the same primordial strand of DNA. Thanks to their leaderless, egalitarian approach, even when Battles sound like something else, they've shifted the context drastically. From Braxton's father Anthony, an esteemed avant-garde composer, comes a rigid sense of orchestral composition that's attentive to tempo and moderation, which Stanier, the heavy-metal drummer, flattens and bends and stretches, Escher-esque. Kanopka and especially Williams play guitar like percussion instruments, refracting rhythm through melody, stretching compositions like Silly Putty. On their recently released debut full-length, Mirrored, Battles uses every influence, every tool, every sound that's come before in a way that's entirely novel. And with that novelty comes the best part, especially for music that's so experimental, so intentional: humor.
"We're not invested in making serious music," Williams says. "The unusual combination of what this band is—we're sort of interested in out-there music and at the same time we don't take ourselves very seriously." Hence the weird, robo-chipmunk jive that Braxton—his vocals filtered through digital effects—spits all over "Atlas," and his god-like boom that rattles the epic, eight-minute "Rainbow." The voices—injected into Battles' mostly instrumental music—are dark and mysterious and totally hilarious.
And that's why Battles makes you believe that rock 'n' roll isn't dead, that there are still new ideas in the world. As big and weird and heavy as the music is, these guys are willing to laugh at their mission and their technique, but then go onstage and attempt something unprecedented every night—"probably just to entertain ourselves," Williams says.
"We still kind of believe in our influences and that we can incorporate all of them," he continues. So it is a mission: Battles might be a garage band for 2007, but when you've got these guys in your garage, time and space no longer apply.