As a key member of pioneering instrumental group Don Caballero, Battles guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams has had a wider impact on the popular music landscape since the ’90s than we might immediately recognize. Since he first developed his signature tapping and looping techniques around the audaciously technical drumming of Don Cabellero leader Damon Che, we’ve seen entire movements arise from the math rock vocabulary that Che, Williams and others played such a crucial role in establishing. The historical connection may be relegated to niche fan blogs these days, but you can directly trace entire branches of emo, post-hardcore and prog-metal back to Don Cab on the evolutionary tree.
Williams’ style tends to be far more playful in Battles, with his guitar and keyboard lines often scurrying across the stereo field like cartoon mice, but with the core angularity still intact. When Battles formed as a kind of fringe supergroup in 2002, Williams’ ideas meshed seamlessly with guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton and bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Dave Konopka. And by the time the then-quartet released its first proper full-length Mirrored in 2007, the cultural moment was ripe for Battles’ bold reconstitution of art rock, groove, electronics, prog and avant-garde composition to resonate beyond the loyal but cult-sized audience Williams had reached with Don Cab.
That, however, was 12 years ago. If there’s anyone today who’s poised to make the world safe for outré, instrumental-ish music to make a comeback, Battles would seem like one of the least likely groups to pull it off. For one, the band brought prominent guest vocalists like Gary Numan and Boredoms frontman Yamataka Eye into the mix starting in 2011 after the departure of Braxton on sophomore album Gloss Drop (though Braxton didn’t serve the role of a quote-unquote singer so much as produce helium-pitched textures with his voice, a mad elf running loose in the music). With Gloss Drop and 2014 follow-up La Di Da Di, Battles took a step closer to traditional (albeit still skewed) pop songcraft. And, though liberated in tone and spirit, neither of those albums expanded far beyond the framework that Battles had already established on Mirrored.
Now, with both Braxton and Kanopka gone, it looks like Battles, reduced from four players down to just a duo lineup, have exponentially fewer synaptic possibilities to work with. Like its two predecessors, the band’s fourth full-length, Juice B Crypts, doesn’t actually offer much by way of a reinvention. In fact, the consistency between the approach on Juice B Crypts and earlier records is somewhat shocking considering that Williams and remaining ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier surely must have had to re-evaluate how they were going to make music in Konopka’s absence. Fortunately, though, Battles’ new material reminds us that similarities in overall approach don’t always translate to a lack of enthusiasm or, more importantly, lack of fresh ideas.
The most cohesive start-to-finish listening experience in the band’s career, Juice B Crypts sees Williams and Stanier balancing with great poise on the line between the noodle-y experimentation Battles are known for and the songcraft they had scratched at the edges of—but never quite fully achieved—on previous records. With and without vocals, the tunes on Juice B Crypts develop, unfold and climax where the band seemed to merely indulge its chops before. Battles are certainly still quirky, and Williams and Stanier have no trouble filling up the sonic space on their own. But the pair also gives itself room to stretch, restraining their usual instinct for sensory overload. Ironically, in doing so, they come up with the richest variety of moods and colors yet—while still preserving the essence of the band’s sound.
The album opens with the frisky carnival organ-like keyboard figure of “Ambulance,” which is then eclipsed by a majestic keyboard swell, a kind of sonic dawn bearing first light, which is in turn replaced by a wiggling keyboard bass loop. Stanier then comes in with a driving drum beat, his nimble hi-hat work in a sort of dance with the loop. Williams returns with a high pitched keyboard theme that, though hummable, seems to fold in on itself even as it repeats itself with the same insistent, frantic volume of someone yelling to themselves in public—in other words, right off the bat, it looks like it’s going to be business as usual from Battles. But a clue of what’s to come arrives at the very end of the song, which wraps up neatly at just over four minutes with a sudden turn into a more reflective, even melancholy space, as a lone keyboard line trails off quietly into the distance.
Battles had rarely left themselves this much room for a simple respite, but even this one short-lived pocket works wonders for the record’s sense of dramatic arc. From there, the band covers a breathtaking expanse of sonic terrain—all without ever deviating from its established formula. Guest vocal appearances by Tune-Yards, singer/songwriter Xenia Rubinos, avant hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, Sal Principato of legendary proto post-punk outfit Liquid Liquid (the band that originally gave us the iconic “White Lines” bassline that Grandmaster Flash made famous), Taiwanese duo Prairie WWWW and Yes vocalist Jon Anderson add up to more than just an intentionally mismatched dinner party roster. Here, all of the featured singers fit their respective tracks like actors matched with the perfect script/director pairings to draw out not only what audiences have come to expect from their abilities, but also to reveal sides of these performers that we’ve never seen.
Anderson’s appearance is particularly revealing, as Battles make no effort to juxtapose his prog-rock reputation with the music for ironic effect. They simply give Anderson a more contemporary foundation to work with, interweaving his voice with a spoken Mandarin intro courtesy of Prairie WWWW and a strobing instrumental arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place on El Ten Eleven’s score for the documentary film Helvetica (released, incidentally, the same year as Mirrored). Anderson does what he has always done, letting his voice soar to the upper reaches of the stratosphere. Removed from the classic prog intonations of Yes, however, Anderson’s familiar delivery takes on new shades of brilliance. And in this pairing of voices and sound—a peculiar mishmosh of elements on paper—Williams and Stanier actually strive for unabashed and startlingly direct beauty. Shockingly, they succeed—no small feat for a band that once would have set out to be obtuse.
To be sure, Juice B Crypts contains many moments of unabashed oddness as well, but in allowing for a sharper contrast between the odd and the beautiful this time, Battles ultimately get further with both.