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Tuesday, July 3, 2007 12:16 am

One big glorious grin

How Battles utterly beguiled the indiescenti

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Battles Mirrored (Warp)
Untitled Document In his essay-cum-manifesto “The Fullness of Time,” the composer Carl Nielsen cautioned against the pursuit of novelty for its own sake: “. . . [T]he smaller and slenderer the talent, the more careful must it be to abstain from seeking great originality. Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity.” Some 80 years later, Nielsen’s words are more relevant than ever; in fact, they should be inscribed over the doorways of boutique record labels, embroidered on guitar straps, tattooed on the foreheads of ADD-addled music writers. The twisted grimaces of vanity are everywhere, dreary bulletins from a never-ending campaign of uglification. To pronounce something sick is high praise; to call something pretty is a major diss. Originality (or, in most cases, its venal simulacrum) is the hipster’s religion, the first commandment of which might be “It’s better to offend than to entertain.”
I have no idea what Nielsen would have thought of Battles, but I’ll confess that recent chatter about the band’s great originality set off my naked-emperor radar big-time. Mirrored, the New York City-based quartet’s first full-length, has utterly beguiled key segments of the indiescenti: Pitchforkmedia.com gave it an almost-unprecedented 9.1 rating, Stylus.com a straight-up A. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Battles has cred out the wazoo. A supergroup of sorts, its lineup boasts Tyondai Braxton, the experimental-electronicist son of free-jazz heavy Anthony Braxton, along with Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and John Stanier, veterans of Don Caballero, Lynx, and Helmet, respectively. Plus, Battles is signed to Warp, one of those cachet-over-cash labels whose imprimatur means everything to certain anticonsumerist consumers. So, yeah, I was leery about the hype, steeling myself for yet another twisted grimace of vanity. And I was glad to be wrong. Whether Battles is original — greatly original or successfully original or painlessly original or whatever degree of originality the bigger, fatter talents presumably pull off — stopped mattering to me about 15 seconds into “Race: In,” Mirrored’s opening cut, a cheerfully demented work song that suggests some distant-future production of Snow White (think “Heigh Ho” as performed by a gang of cyborg dwarves). “Certainly there are recognizable elements in the Battles armamentarium: prog, metal, experimental dance music, post-punk, jazz-fusion, math-rock. To expect any artist to create an entirely new genre out of whole cloth is clearly unreasonable. But Battles does more than merely hybridize; it combines existing traditions with such ingenuity, authority, and joy that the old forms don’t seem updated so much as liberated.
Whereas Battles’ previous releases — two EPs repackaged last year as a single set — were wholly instrumental, almost every track on Mirrored features Braxton’s vocals, although they’re so heavily processed that they function as another instrument. They’re pitch-shifted and vaguely Princelike on the crypto-funk workout “Leyendecker,” layered into a spectral Native American chant on “Tonto,” spliced and diced as a choking gasp on “Tij.” The musicianship is a model of virtuosic restraint; despite the fact that all three of the band’s guitarists are more-than-capable shredders, they mostly confine themselves to two- or three-note figures, pungent little hooks that ricochet off one another in glittering contrapuntal shards. Stanier, for his part, is that rare drummer who can glide from lockstep pounding to tricky syncopation without ever ceasing to swing. Collectively, Battles is a tightrope act, strategically pitched between the ecstatic release of improvisational music and the stringent precision of contemporary classical. From the postindustrialist oompah of “Atlas” to the canaries-in-a-meat-grinder maelstrom of “Ddiamondd,” from the rainforest nocturne “Bad Trails” to the fairgrounds stagger of “Rainbow,” Mirrored is one big glorious grin — not a twisted grimace in sight. 
René Spencer Saller reviews new music for Illinois Times. Contact her at rssaller@core.com.
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