es, the rumors are true: these guys can play. And if somehow the upside-down V you see above hasn’t already given me away, I dig that. But I’d also feel low down and disingenuous calling them “sick” without first describing how Mirrored fills to corpulence the boundaries of that emaciated term. One way: Battles unite process and expression, making playing that’s as quantized and mechanical as Kraftwerk sound as wild and urgent as Albert Ayler. How sick is that? Better question: How is that sick?
If you spent any time with the band’s proudly abstruse B and C EPs from 2004, which Warp last year consolidated into one double-disc issue, you know the basic score: burly riffs, muscular grooves, some odd time, loud, not particularly tuneful—and mischievously approachable considering all that. With that foreknowledge, Mirrored might give you pause.
That (welcome) change owes partly to the added element of Tyondai Braxton’s voice, which helps rein in this formerly ’roided-up quartet. When Ty performs solo, sitting Indian-style behind a croissant of boxes and wires, he could be an out-of-sync YouTube clip of himself. You see him move his mouth, but the corresponding sound doesn’t arrive for a few seconds, time enough for it to have undergone a total transformation. Sound so doctored and dispossessed can assume its own life, but Braxton claims the steadiest invisible hand this side of Fennesz, and he works it to beguile us to pieces.
Vocals (maybe) and all manners of rasping, wheezing, and mind-squeezing delay FX aside, Mirrored doesn’t seem to wave many wands, not at first. It hits the tongue as pipe-bending math rock that leaves little to chance. Me, I’m usually skeptical of such power postures; I believe that, where art’s the aim, the wand is at least as important as the pick.
But yeah, Battles get that. What’s more, they’re good enough to reverse the terms of the relationship and put the wand in service of the pick. By that I mean they manipulate—better than any band I can think of—the tension between the ecstatic, undisciplined glossolalia of the imagination and the voice that makes those raw materials stand to and march.
Ignore the title “Race In”—the opener takes a cool two minutes to get motoring, introducing its constituent parts one by one until…boom. There’s a big boom. It’s a transparent momentum-building tactic, sure, but not pointlessly so: by forcing us to dwell on each individual line, Battles create the impression of a jumble of aphorisms. By then disciplining that jumble, they make the two phases of artistic creation talk to one another. And like pretty much everything Battles create, the conversation fucking rocks.
Here’s a fact: Battles rock, and rocking—true rocking, a virtuosity with something to say—can’t be faked. Most players work for years before they can play a simple note with any semblance of authority, to say nothing of actually making music. We tend to scoff at technical proficiency or, worse, to vilify it as narcissistic, but these are Whole Foods chops—safe-for-consumption because labeled Organic. Battles, as a release valve for the indieverse’s pent-up anxiety over proficiency, won’t be loved or even dug—they’ll be worshipped. Mirrored has the makings of total cult-of-genius shit.
That’s no reason to begrudge them the indie fame they’re likely to catch, though. John Stanier mounts his (very large) crash cymbal a good three feet above the rest of his kit. To hit it he almost has to lunge. Do I need to explain what this says about consumption, about superabundance, about greed? Hanging your metal up in Yao Ming air looks rad and gets the crowd fired, for sure, but it also drives home a point about earning your sound, going broke rather than going home, avoiding blasé and entitled like the plagues they are.
And such is the condition of Mirrored: plague-free, yet always sick. Between the world-swallowing longer cuts (viz. club hit “Atlas,” here pried open by a mewling three-minute vamp, and penultimate track “Tij,” Mirrored’s primal-man moment) one finds a sub-album of short songs that ski off-piste. “Snare Hanger” intimates classic BTTLS call-and-response before recostuming as—what else?—a feather-footed carnival punk romp that hitches plinky XTC keybs to Futureheads vocal rounds. “Rainbow” spends an eternity just getting down low enough to be able to explode properly: like a marriage, or a pact with Satan, the eruption at 5:27 isn’t the sort of thing you leap into unprepared. Flipside’s the hypnotic-if-you-want-it-to-be slow burn of “Bad Trails,” which loses drums to make room for bird chirps and velvety guitar peals.
Having spent a month with this record, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe the band name—“Battles”—is more than just first-glance significant after all. Back in the more macho EP days, I read it as a call to arms, but I never knew what against. Now I’m pretty sure it’s meant as an exhortation to treat the aesthetic experience with a relentless passion bordering on fervor, to create as if the stakes have never been higher, even if they have. Oh, but fuck what it means—that’s just what Mirrored does.
Reviewed by: Sam Ubl
Reviewed on: 2007-05-21