Battles – Mirrored (2007)

battles-mirroredTodd emailed me with a loquacious “you should listen to this” and a link to download a promo of Mirrored early in 2007. I had literally no idea what to expect.

Even if it were notable only as the home for “Atlas”, one of the decade’s most brazenly bizarre singles, Mirrored would still be an awesome record. “Atlas” isn’t the only outstanding moment on this post/math/jazz/rock/delete-as-appropriate supergroup’s debut album, though; from the moment that frenetic rimshots open “Race: In”, it’s pretty evident that Battles mean a strange, fast, alien kind of business. If you’ve seen them live you’ll know that on several occasions more than one member of the band will play a guitar with one hand and a keyboard with another, and that drummer John Stanier keeps a cymbal so high he literally has to leap off his stool to hit it. We’ve seen them live twice now, four years apart, and it’s been mental each time. This record isn’t much different. It sounds like little elves doing crazy jazz Kyuss covers at some points. Oompah Loompahs covering “Super Scoopa & Mighty Scoop”, but a bit more… physics graduate. With odd helium mantras.

At first Stanier’s monumental drumming seems an odd bedfellow with Tyondai Braxton’s amphet-soaked pixie vocals, run through god-knows-what FX, the product of some late-night hallucination that lasted through to daylight when it suddenly made sense, but through sheer, bludgeoning virtuosity, they come together. Perhaps at times Mirrored veers too far into “look at me, ma!” displays of technical proficiency from all concerned (the other two, lest we forget, are Dave Konopka and Ian Williams), but there’s always something a little dangerous, a little unhinged, about the playing that makes this a very different beast to Steely Dan.

So some moments sound like a hardcore band playing inside a washing machine, and other moments sound like the theme tune to kids TV programs produced by robotic sadists. “Tonto” is a never-ending riff-fest that takes so many detours you end up with no recollection of how it began; “Ddiamondd” is 2:34 of schizophrenic prog/jazz/punk momentum. I don’t know whether it sounds like humans who want to be robots or robots who want to be humans,

“Atlas” itself pretty much defies description; it opens with a glam stomp and then, well… one moment it’s a piece of slamming techno, the next a moment of proggy postrock. Six years later, I still don’t understand it. Pop has always been at its best when it’s been confusing and otherworldly, but what Battles do here is something entirely different—I’ve never heard anything else of its ilk. The deranged pixie vocals, the glam-stomp drumbeat, the mathematically precise guitars and keyboards, the deconstructionist arrangement; it morphs and morphs and morphs again. It could have been a horrific mess, po-faced and insufferable, but instead it’s a joyous, dancefloor-filling, moshpit-rocking behemoth. Monumental like the black slab from 2001 and just as confusing, it might also, like that slab, signal the next step of human evolution. Or it might just rock weirdly. It’s on a playlist of singles that I occasionally put on in the office. My colleagues always skip it.

Mirrored, unrelentingly futurist and progressive on all fronts (just look at the cover), both aggressive and utopic, beautiful and furious, controlled and unpredictable, is so fascinatingly deranged that it must be the product of very sane men. Afterwards Tyondai left, and it took them four years and half-a-dozen vocal collaborators to produce a follow-up. You don’t make records like this every day.

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