Stop making sense

Jason Frank Rothenberg

What draws a listener to Battles is more likely a reflection of the individual than a telling indicator of the band's sound.

The trio has never concerned itself with defining a clear direction, and the band will be the first to admit that songwriting is more a "messy push and pull" than an organized and intentional process. For Battles, experimentation is a direction. Thus far, that's taken the form of an epic mingling of ominous and math-y riffs, bright electronics and underlying aggression, a sound that's landed Battles a fan base whose loyalties are as diverse as the band's sprawling creations. 

"We have a lot of different sort of facets, and in a weird way, we speak a private language to people from different genres," explains multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams. "The hard-rock kid can be like, 'Oh, that guy was in Helmet. I like this.' Or the electronic-music kid can get something out of it because in some ways there's a thread of dance music in there. Or the experimental math-rock kid can get something out of it. Or even just your average, cute young 23-year-old who reads Pitchfork every day and likes Arcade Fire can get something out of it."

There's a certain irony to that truth. From the band's inception, the predominant narrative has revolved around Battles' inaccessibility to the average listener. Clearly, the band defies neat labels and the verse-chorus structure of traditional pop music; but the assumption that a mostly instrumental outfit with elements of divergent genres is inherently outside the realm of casual music fans is flawed. Battles' dizzying swells are more than accessible — they’re infectious.

"My goal," agrees Williams, "is for us to make music as good as it can be according to our own tastes and standards, but have it be as common and as accessible as a tabloid magazine in a supermarket checkout line."

Its latest album, Gloss Drop, isn't likely to end up in the hands of many housewives or grandparents, but Williams' intention is realized. While maintaining the ferocity and dark subtext of 2007's Mirrored, the band's latest effort also embraces the brighter possibilities of its electronic arsenal. Gloss Drop is simultaneously crushing and uplifting, organic and machine, a sound like post-apocalyptic island music for robots. It's the crossroads of avant-garde experimentation and pop anthem, a place where everybody can feel at home.

However, writing this record proved infinitely more difficult than the last and eventually saw the departure of multi-instrumentalist and founding member Tyondai Braxton. Although there had never been "conversational debates" about the band's direction, previous sessions had a cohesiveness that was lacking this time around. After two years of touring, Williams says, things were just different. The four members holed up in their own private mini studios at Machines With Magnets in Rhode Island and crafted individual "ideas for songs," a strategy that didn't breed cooperation.

"The creative process and us gelling as a band was basically trying to combine our tracks to figure out how we don't have too much of a traffic jam and there's some coherent structure to the whole thing. We were having a really hard time combining Ty's vision of the record and our vision. So when he bailed out, that actually saved the record. All of a sudden we were like, OK, now let's combine the three of our parts and we have some coherent songs and something makes sense."

Some would argue that the best part of Battles is that the band will never make sense. And perhaps that's the only thing about the band that does. Whatever you like about Battles, there's no denying that the trio is as cohesive as ever.

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