(Warp; 2007)

By Chet Betz | 11 May 2007

Battles are fucking around; Battles aren't fucking around. Mirrored is Battles at their most experimental and their most immediate, their most wanky and most focused. That's not meant to paint the band into a corner of "oh, look at all the brilliant contradictions." This is music for the sake of music, devouring and devoured by its own visceral, cerebral mindful(less)ness. Battles aren't playing one side against another. They've smashed the sides into a two-dimensional figure, and they achieve depth by mirrors. No smoke. Only cold, hard mirrors.

I realize this is abstract to the point of being utterly nondescriptive. But we're dealing with a band that will lay warped vocals over honking guitar blurts, mad drums, and just fucking silly key lines, and act like it's music of necessity and not concept. Act like its rock and not prog. Like they're balling, not doodling. Like "Atlas" is a single. And they're pretty convincing. So if I'm gonna sum shit up, shit's gonna get summed up with lots of shrugs and f-bombs. It's almost shameful to try because Battles are the smart guys too smart to be smart-asses, and their expression seems to have everything to do with just being body-shaking, synapse-smacking music that tears through and out the other side of "intellectual," "academic," "hip," and any combination or derivative thereof.

What makes Mirrored and ultimately Battles work is a frenzied adherence to simple nominative intentions. The name "Battles" dictates conflict and tension and sides warring; most of the tracks here carry that out, Williams and Braxton devising weird upper register volleys to throw at each other over the martial pounding of Stanier while Konopka pumps black shit into the undercurrent. And as much as the guitar lines duel, they also reflect each other, and then you hear how Braxton's mutant chipmunk vocals are mirroring and extrapolating parts of those lines or how the keyboards are doing the same with his vocals or how all of it--depending on your perspective--could be considered a kaleidoscopic whirlpool around Stanier's devilry. Is it all burning debris demonstrating the inescapable gravity of a hard beat?

Even in those moments where there aren't drums, the music anticipates or remembers them. The shining exception comes at the end of the epic "Rainbow," where Braxton's inscrutable wails and Williams' diffused chords break free and then dissipate somewhere above the stratosphere, leaving a prismatic vapor trail in their wake. It's freaking beautiful. Then Stanier resumes crushing shit on the very next track, the tommy-gun sock-hop of "Leyendecker." Percussion-lite "Bad Trails" is perhaps the album's low-point, though what form and rhythm the track does have seems to follow the impression of what Stanier's drums would be doing if more blatantly present; as is, the track is held together by a two-note motif that clamps down the edges of the bars--once that pseudo-hook vanishes, the music feels lost in its own noise jungle.

If Stanier's setting the pace, then the band machetes through the growth and barrels forward. And now Braxton's leading with heavy incorporation of the manipulated vox that features prominently in his solo work; oddly, what might have sounded a mite tedious at last year's Pitchfork Fest works quite differently when embedded in the gangly framework of Battles' chicanery. Self-absorbed mutterings become a twisted pop element; I mean, "Ddiamondd" is almost cute, Braxton's neo-twee scat bobbing intermittently over the splashy drums and fuzzed-out bass. Battles are most self-fulfilling when they're killing shit, and they do plenty of that on Mirrored, it's just that over the killing there trumps a scary amount of celebratory treble. Fiddy's laughing all the way to the bank; Battles are laughing all the way to the battlefield. It's not irony but bloodthirsty glee that's got this band giggling.

Ultimately, Mirrored triumphs. Even when it fails, it fails on its own terms--blazes of glory, if you will. Short, pulsing tracks "Prismism" and "Snare Hanger" hit like telegraph mallets to the temple. Long, sprawling tracks "Tonto" and "Tij" spiral and wind through the unpredictable. Most of it is strangely fierce and only really fiercely strange if you can catch your breath long enough to think about it. Which is almost impossible when Battles have you looking at bombs bursting from within a maze of mirrors. Shrug. Fuck. Rock.