I’ve been dreading this – the moment when I think I’ve stumbled across a groovy new group, only to learn that it consists of people who others describe as ‘the legendary…’
Before playing this thirty-minute instrumental EP, I’d never heard of the legendary Tyondai Braxton, nor of the legendary Don Caballero. There, I said it. Can you believe that? Go on, point and sneer. I can take it.
I’d never heard of math rock, either (gets worse, doesn’t it?), let alone neo-indie-prog rock, but if you happened to be a devotee of either (you’re from New York you’re fresh out of Bard or Sarah Lawrence and you have a copy of Gödel-Escher-Bach hanging around the apartment somewhere – just a wild guess) you’ll know the territory.
The planetoid Battles coalesced around these four math…neo…thingy legends quite recently after several years of doing their own thing, and these five tracks represents just half of their entire recorded output (less if you consider that two of the tracks – tras 2 and ipt 2 – are reworks of songs on two earlier EP’s – B EP and Tras – which were both released only a month or two ago). They remind me of the legendary Soft Machine at times, and at others of the legendary Lost Jockey (I’ll stop this in a minute) – both groups that explored that fertile delta where jazz and rock flow together and sometimes got called fusion but mostly got shunted off into oblivion and enthusiasts’ vinyl collections. You don’t have to wander far up one of the side-tributaries of provenance before you encounter the legendary Pink Floyd, either – but there, I’m all smarty-pantsed out. Enough of legends. What of Battles?
It’s always a visceral thrill to come across a group that’s really grabbing the baton and running like fuck out of the arena. Whoa – where’d they go? Live, I hear these guys are something else. One of the things about musical experimentation is that it’s mostly about winging it – the chemistry of the group in the electricity of the moment. Distinct from a scientific experiment, which is a series of trials in anticipation of a breakthrough in understanding, an artistic experiment is often the event itself – a challenge to understanding. The question of whether a musical experiment is worth committing to tape, and hence exposing to the pitiless scrutiny of repetition, however, is moot.
I’m glad to have heard B EP. It gave me a little insight into what Battles are trying to do. But, unlike, EP C, I shan’t be listening to it very often (there’s one track – Bttls – twelve minutes of self-indulgent twaddle – that’s as unlistenable as Coil on a bad hair day). Inexplicably, B has been released after C in the UK , whereas the release order went Tras – B – C in the States, which surely represents the true chronology, because the differences between B and C are functions of a productive evolution, the thrashing out of a set of creative compromises that still allow for flashes of improvisational genius to shine through whilst working within a necessarily more ordered and accessible structure – something for us mere mortals to get a handle on.
One of the more irritating things about the jazz impro scene is the bit where everyone gets to do their solo – “and now Benny on drums” – cue five minutes of thrashing and flailing and stick-shredding ending in a monsoon of perspiration, wild gales of applause, and the final (at last!) chorus break. They used to do it in rock, too, for a while, but always got let down by Mark on bass (not a virtuoso instrument, electric bass). John Stanier is a tremendously exciting drummer – he seems able to braid 4/4 with 6/8 and still syncopate something else unquantifiable without breaking sweat – I reckon he’d give Nick Mason a run for his money. It does seem occasionally as if he’s in danger of becoming detached from the machine, though, but they pre-empt that by trailing out one by one on tras 2 – the final track – and just letting him finish it by himself in the stuttering reiteration of one of the strangest drum solos you’ll ever hear. Brilliant. He hangs his hi-hat from a six-foot stand in live gigs, apparently. Cool.
Apart from the aforementioned Tyondai Braxton, Battles also comprises Ian Williams and David Konopka – four of a kind who clearly know how to make a boat rock as sweet as Waterloo when they feel like it and they’re not busy translating the Moiré patterns in the bow-wave into a synth-programme.
Left-hemisphere music of this kind is supposed to work well as an emotional hangover cure – tying feelings into a complex and ever-changing cats-cradle that’s fun to witness as well as to try to figure out, so that by the time you’ve done that, you’ve forgotten the pain. Bollocks, I say. It’s in the fine tradition of emotionally constipated neo-classical excess that runs a joyful golden mile from Bach to Berg Sans Nipple without going to the toilet once. Love it or leave.