Album Review: Battles band wars with tradition

Sure, at first glance, the indie-math-progressive rock freakshow Battles is just another ingenious new band with a killer debut album already under their belt (because there are so many of those, these days…). But trace the Battles' bloodline back a few veins and you'll find a bit more musical experience one would expect from an out-of-nowhere critical success.

First there's drummer John Stanier, who boasts a resume that includes stints with post-hardcore act Helmet as well as Tomahawk, alongside multi-talent Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle). Then there's guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, who collaborated with Big Black founder Steve Albini on the noise-rock project, Storm & Stress. Throw in loner avant-garde musician Tyondai Braxton and, oh, let's say another guitarist for good measure (David Konopka) and suddenly the starburst of interplanetary sound-play that Battles somehow conjures isn't all that hard to figure out.

In March of 2007, Battles released a queer little experimental album called Mirrored. Today, that album is number eight on Pitchfork Media's best albums of the year and Battles is playing everywhere from Berlin to Bonnaroo. What's so unusual isn't necessarily all the attention the band is suddenly receiving - that's to be expected when something as unique as Mirrored comes along - but just how foreign and strange the music itself sounds. Sometimes calculated, sometimes slapdash, the music is jagged and rickety as an old, wooden roller coaster.

Most bands are easy to place by dipping into their musical influences. Battles can only be described by what they don't sound like. Are they like Ratatat? Nah, not quite dancy enough. Minus the Bear? Certainly more sporadic than that. Even within Mirrored itself, there's conflict. "Tonto" is frantic and catchy enough to be a distant relative to LCD Soundsystem, but "Bad Trails" sounds like some African war chant transmitted through space.

Thus far, Battles has avoided the standard composition style of a rock song, eliminating the voice as a vehicle for lyrics but using it instead as a driving musical force. In almost all the songs that include an audible voice, it is distorted and computerized beyond recognition, resembling anything from mice getting their tails stepped on to the squeaky singing of an androgynous angel.

The instruments, too, are used in strange ways, even for a style that borders on progressive. Battles have never recorded a traditional guitar solo, and yet every moment in every song teems with compositional complexity.

If Mirrored's improvements over the sheer inaccessibility of Battles' earlier EPs are any indication, the group has locked down a sharp ebb-and-flow workmanship that is beginning to grow a notorious reputation as a live act, as well. For those interested in being lab rats in Battles' sonic experiments, the band is touring this spring. To check out their schedule, visit