Experimental rockers ditch the vocals in search of a new voice
Battles have always been, first and foremost, an instrumental band. Their strength comes from a combination of virtuoso musicianship and a willingness to embrace experimental structures. Their early EPs were rhythmic masterclasses that split the lines between prog rock, post-rock and minimal techno. So tight was the playing that the music sometimes felt more like the product of robots than a group of guys jamming in real time.
Despite these beginnings, the conversation surrounding their subsequent material has often been dominated by how the band has chosen to deploy vocals. Their 2007 debut ‘Mirrored’ was marked by the freewheeling, digitally manipulated voice of Tyondai Braxton, who in the middle of preparations for second album ‘Gloss Drop’ left to focus on his solo work. The band coped spectacularly with this significant departure by drafting in an array of guest vocalists, most notably Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo.
Their latest record, ‘La Di Da Di’, is characterised by an absence of vocals. As Battles’ first entirely instrumental full-length, it could have been a chance to re-engage with the core elements of their practice. Unfortunately, it comes across as a missed opportunity, and something of a damp squib. Which feels like a strange thing to be writing about a Battles record, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that ‘La Di Da Di’ is a step down. Simply put, ‘La Di Da Di’ is neither as fun as ‘Gloss Drop’ nor as purely thrilling as ‘Mirrored’.
The lack of any vocal tracks needn’t have been a problem at all, but perhaps a welcome injection of character would have given the listener something else to latch onto. Lead track, ‘The Yabba’, is a good example of what lies in store. It’s bold in terms of structure, with spindly riffs and interlocking grooves, but offers little else. It feels like a series of false starts, a conveyor belt of promising ideas that could do with some more development. ‘Mirrored’ succeeded because it paired its compositional ambition with propulsive energy, rather than treating it as an end in itself.
I don’t want to be misleading, there is good stuff here, from the glitchy reggae lilt of ‘Megatouch’ to the playful carnival vibe of ‘Dot Com’. The band themselves are excellent throughout, especially John Stanier on drums. Perhaps the best track is ‘Non-Violence’ – it has an invigorating insistencey about it, a real heft to the drums and a splendid rush of sparkly synths that dissolve as rapidly as they appear. The entrance of each new element is unpredictable and, crucially, exciting.
If this review dwells unfairly on the negatives, it’s only because we expect more from Battles. I understand why the band didn’t want to offer up a repeat of ‘Gloss Drop’, but they needed to give us something more substantial than this. ‘La Di Da Di’ succeeds when it harnesses the energy of its predecessors, but a lot of the time it feels strangely inert. Battles have always been a band easier to admire than to love. It’s just that this time round, there’s not even that much to admire.