Band of the Week: Battles

Music Features
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Hometown: New York, NY
Members: [l-r] John Stanier (drums); Ian Williams (guitar); Dave Konopka (bass, guitar); Tyondai Braxton (guitar, vocals)
Fun Fact: Battles claim a close spiritual kinship with Stanley Kubrick, going so far as to half-seriously describe their music as "the soundtrack to the ever-evolving Kubrick film constantly being played in our minds."
Whey They’re Worth Watching: Like a juicy Philip K. Dick novel, the music of Battles is both fun and forward-thinking.
For Fans Of: Animal Collective, Tortoise, The Go! Team

If bands like Lynx, Don Caballero and Helmet had achieved widespread popularity, Battles would be hailed as a supergroup.

As it stands though, the quartet, which coalesced after a string of encounters on the streets of New York City, will have to settle for being merely a collection of technically gifted players able to deliver idiosyncratic recordings and sweat-soaked performances.

An early trio of EPs in 2004 showcased a vision of Battles that was overtly technical and occasionally alienating. "Those songs were formative," says guitarist Ian Williams dismissively. "The EPs were released at a time when the band was still finding our sound and direction."

Mirrored, the band's first full-length effort, is an entirely different affair. With Tyondai Braxton (guitars, vocals) adding pitch-tweaked vocals and all three guitarists (Dave Konopka also plays guitar in addition to bass) manning an array of synths and looping devices, songs like "Atlas" and "Tonto" have evolved out of math rock and into a realm once overseen by Björk. Twitchy melodies swirl around bedrock beats, forming compulsively danceable rhythms.

Committed to tape, the music of Battles is "sort of like a weird way of bringing organic and mechanical together, because both elements are there," Williams explains. "It's very technical, and to build each song, one thing has to happen before the other, so there's a logical process. And yet, there is a spontaneity to the way we do it."

Live, the four aggressively refute the vision of mechanized music established by pioneers such as Kraftwerk. At stage front, drummer John Stanier madly nails each beat while, incessantly bobbing and dancing, Williams and Braxton create sonic layers, often with one hand tapping a melody on a guitar neck while the other mirrors it on keys. Konopka acts as the guide, anchoring each track with loops and spare basslines.

"To us, it is all very composed and set, but there's a certain looseness to the live show; we're not reproducing the record and it comes across differently," Williams says. "To keep it fresh and stay inspired, you have to almost try to surprise yourself. Half the time we f— up, and everyone thinks we're improvising."

The group's new vocal content has created swirls of contention among fans. "There's no doubt that the vocals open up accessibility, whether you like that or not," Williams opines, expressing some discomfort at reactions to Braxton's delivery. "I often read that they are lyricless vocals, but they're not. I listen to a lot of music [from other cultures] where I don't know what they're saying, and I like that. I like the voice when you can't understand the content, because it emphasizes the music."