Opening with a pulsing snare and what sounds like the bottom of a tin can being tapped mercilessly with a drumstick, introducing a whistle, and then notes that could either be coming from a guitar or a keyboard, the aptly titled “Race: In” sets “Mirrored”, Battles’ first full-length, off like a line of flame slowly making its way to a truck full of TNT. It’s all there; the propulsive riffs, the heavy use of repetition, the interplay of instruments like gears rotating inside a child’s kaleidoscope.
This is a supremely confident and energetic album, at once cool and detached and yet also bleeding from what is obviously the work of four committed musicians, Dave Konopka (bass, guitar and effects), John Stanier (drums), Ian Williams (keyboard, guitar), and Tyondai Braxton (guitar, keyboards, vocals). Listening to this disc’s sheer craft, it is no surprise that most of these guys have played in bands long before forming Battles, and in a sense the four represent a low-key super-group. However instead of talented male guitarists butting heads, we get a sense of cohesion that carries you through all 51 minutes of this superb, unforgettable record.
It undulates and oscillates; it moves forward both with a supple, sublime grace, and the exquisite logic of a military operation; it is both muscular and bulky, and yet also slinky and lithe; it is a diminutive box car secretly packing the power of a thousand galloping horses churning the shore into foam; it is a muscle car chiseled out of bits of The Rock that doesn’t make a sound when it goes from 0-60. Aggression and comfort, machine and organism, often in the space of the same song.
And what songs! “Atlas”, Battles’ biggest hit from the album has a pulse that gets yours racing, with chipmunked vocals and crunchy licks akin to crowd-surfing. Some tracks, such as “Ddiamondd” and “Leyendecker” are nimble exercises that resemble more conventional songs if only because the vocals are pushed to the fore; others, like “Tonto” and “Bad Trails” are expansive, noodling efforts that push themselves to the limits that these four guys have set for themselves, setting their own tempo, building to rushing crescendos that leave you aghast. “Tij” pushes forward and forward, bringing an unfettered momentum that you don’t think can pay off (it can, though, obviously).
Throughout, the instruments vary in tone and modulation. The guitars sometimes sounding crisp and clean, at other points sounding like a prog improvisation. The drumming switches between drill-like hits of hardcore hammering, at others gilded and effortless. And the vocals ice the thing like a cake, high-pitched but never irritating, human and yet inhuman. You can recognise the shape of the words, but not their contours and precisions.
Then there’s “Rainbow”, a cataclysmic composition of precision and beauty that begins with the tap of a drum, a skittish bassline, and atonal guitar backdrops, that expands outwards and onwards, packing in enough bombast to give you weapons-grade tinnitus, before dipping into an ambient interlude and then… a vocal cue that sounds like a God intervening in the affairs of humans by splitting a mountain in two. It’s one of the most chilling, and awe-inspiring moments in music I’ve heard this year (and when you look up the hard-to-parse lyrics, and realise that the song is basically commenting on itself, you think… Yes, of course).
I realise that I’ve described all of these tracks in roughly the same way, in that they’re working towards something; indeed, the whole album feels like it’s working towards something. This disc is absolutely fixated on payoffs, whether it’s the aforementioned vocal break of “Rainbow”, the throwback of the last track, “Race: Out”, or the final two minutes of “Tij”, which explodes like wrought-iron gates being split apart by white-heat. This is a deeply rewarding disc that, in 2007 (what a year for music) sought out new boundaries for music in this digital millennium, and offered them up to us on a gilded plate.
It’s a tricky album to find footing on, given the constantly shifting tectonic plates that constitute its eleven tracks. But when you can navigate it’s rocky terrain, you feel like an ant amongst the mountaintops. It’s a hell of a payoff.