Experimental rock outfit Battles exploded onto the indie scene in 2007 with Mirrored, an album that scratched a particular itch in the folds of the brain, causing listeners to bounce and dance jubilantly while also attempting to figure out exactly what was happening. The then-quartet had a strong joint resume that included work in noise and math rock acts including Helmet, Lynx, and Don Caballero, but few expected the propulsive compositions they unleashed. John Stanier brought furious, precise drumming, Ian Williams nimbly looped and layered stretches of synth and guitar, Dave Konopka tapped out interlocking guitar and bass, and Tyondai Braxton seemed to lead the way, doing some multi-instrumental looping of his own as well as pitch-shifting and twisting his voice into alternately cute and eerie cartoon tones. Braxton left the band abruptly prior to followup Gloss Drop, and the remaining band members grasped at straws to find a replacement, using guest vocalists to fill his absence.
Their third album, La Di Da Di, reveals that there never really was an absence. Gloss Drop treated Battles’ formula as though Braxton’s voice were the pop element, the door that allowed listeners into their complex architectural structures. They recruited the likes of Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo, musicians who innovate and experiment, but lead the way with clear-ringing vocals. It was no wonder that the track featuring Yamantaka Eye, the Boredoms vocalist with an immense range and feral delivery, was the album’s strongest. Something about the clear vocals of Gloss Drop slowed the experience down; in actively pulling out the lyrics, you weren’t just letting the combustive music take you wherever it went.
Braxton’s vocals rode the crests of waves, but they were as much (if not more) an instrument as they were communicative tool. I still sing along with “Atlas” every time I hear it, even if I’ve had dozens of arguments about what he’s saying and still don’t know for certain. I’m as likely to try to sing along with some of the key and guitar riffs on La Di Da Di as I was Braxton’s vocals. The opening run of “The Yabba”, “Dot Net”, and “FF Bada” dazzle, immediately establishing that these three musicians don’t need a vocalist to have a voice.
“The Yabba” begins simply as off-kilter synths spin around Stanier’s steady mallets. The camera zooms out, revealing other orbits: distorted guitar sweeps, nail gun cymbals, staccato synth pulse. Over nearly seven minutes, the paths loop in and out of each other, creating eclipses where one overpowers the rest and points at which they all array in perfect harmony. “FF Bada”, meanwhile, stutters out a couple layers of math guitar chug before Stanier splashes his way into the picture, pushing the guitarists faster and faster, the precision of their pieces never flagging despite the ratcheting tempo. Its a stunning display of musicianship, but more than that, it’s a track where the drums sound like giant typewriters and the guitars like factory machinery and it still manages to be entirely fun and groovy. “Dot Net” shifts inside the machine, all squonk and squiggle in the synths; “Dot Com” later works like a glitzier version of the same thing, the synths a little brighter, growing a little wilder amidst the mechanical chug.
This is essentially the first time Battles are taking this approach, so there are some growing pains to be heard. A few brief tracks work essentially as interludes, songs that aim to build atmosphere and wind up sounding half-sketched. The guitars on “Cacio e Pepe” use long, drawn-out tones, a relative rarity for Battles; it’s an interesting version of their sound, but without the push-and-pull, the song lingers too long in open air without compelling movement. “Flora>Fauna” similarly could be fleshed out into a full-blown gem, but fades in and out on a repeating loop pattern without their usual dramatic arc.
Rather than chase after past successes, Battles use La Di Da Di to begin something new. Williams, Konopka, and Stanier no longer even sound cognizant of Braxton’s absence. They prove on their third album that they don’t need any extra help to deliver exciting music. By all indications, they don’t need anyone else’s help in telling a compelling story, either — that all comes in the way they build and remove layers. They had one extra layer to work with when they had vocals, but they can just as easily add in another layer of synth or guitar. When they shuffle enough elements around on La Di Da Di, it’s a thrilling experience to try to keep up with.
Essential Tracks: “The Yabba”, “FF Bada”