Marc Bolan may be dead, but Battles can rebuild him. They have the technology. On “Atlas”, the second track on the band’s debut album, drummer John Stanier’s pistons pump out a steroidal version of Bolan’s trademark shuffling stomp-beat. His three bandmates– Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and Tyondai Braxton– constrict their two-note keyboards and one-note guitars until the song coalesces into a stiff, slick, swinging robot rock. It’s like a skills-exchange workshop where mechanically minded krautrockers are encouraged to share their knowledge with remedial class glam bands only interested in big beat thrills. And as the almost-club-friendly single, it’s the perfect introduction to the rest of Mirrored, easing you into the album’s mix of over-the-top whimsy, extreme analogue rhythms that are often as much jazz-fusion as IDM as tech-metal, vocals that would do Roger Troutman proud, and vise-tight, “live or laptop?” musicianship connected as much by USB ports and Firewire cables as the improvisatory interplay of four dudes just jamming.
In fact, Battles may be the first band to really play with the way that 21st century software can extend and distend the sound of a rock band in real time; Mirrored moves in ways that Battles’ first two instrumental EPs–post-rock played with the locked-down seriousness of modern techno–only suggested. Early Battles shows could sound like a metal band performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Mirrored spurns solos, favoring a caffeinated maximalism where compositions are built out of 100 microscopic parts. The guitarist/keyboardists string together tracks out of riffs that crisscross with the careful preplanning of a subway system. Each instrument on opening track “Race In”– Stanier’s military-precise massed snares, the guitars tensely climbing up and down a few notes, what sound like synthetic tubular bells– is added with the deliberate patience of a Terry Riley composition. The song feels nervously repetitive, like it’s suffering from OCD.
If you’ve seen Battles live, you’ve probably seen the phrase “ex-members of” written on the flyer, and so maybe none of this surprises you. Save Stanier, everyone in Battles is a multi-instrumentalist, playing a prog album’s worth of guitars, electronics, and/or keyboards. Braxton’s put in time splitting the difference between IDM and avant-garde electronics; Konopka played with underrated indie instrumentalists Lynx, Stanier drummed for scholastic-metal pioneers Helmet; Williams finger-tapped for Don Caballero. But while there’s certainly more than a shade of math rock’s intricacy on Mirrored, tracks like the terse, tambourine-rattling quasi-funk of “Tonto” or Stanier’s time-signature and tempo fuckery on the crescendo-crazed “Tij”, the stern stuff is continually undercut by a vibe that’s more romper room than po-faced. The “hook” on “Race In” is a whistle-while-you-work chant that they’re probably humming down at Fraggle Rock. The astounding “Rainbow” spins into dizzying Rube Goldberg corkscrews of keyboard, xylophone, and giddily speed-attenuated symphonic metal drums. It sounds like the band is trying to recreate the Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs and Daffy are dueling orchestra conductors, each driving their ensembles to crazier and crazier call-and-response peaks.
And what makes Mirrored’s merry melodies really stand out isn’t the crazy quilt structures or needlepoint precision of the playing. It’s the frenzied gibberish of Braxton’s pitch-shifted and electronically processed vocals– a kind of ecstatic robot that’s speaking in cartoon tongues. When “Atlas” dropped a few months back, those vocals were a squeaky line in the sand for old fans, and across the internet, everyone had the same thought: “Why are Battles suddenly aping the Animal Collective?” But Avey Tare and company hardly invented high-pitched sing-song vocals– just ask David Seville. On “Leyendecker”, Braxton croons in a falsetto that’s been whipped up by technology until it sounds like a neutered D’Angelo. Combined with the music, a low-res quasi-R&B beat as grainy as a glitch track, Braxton’s circuitry pushes “Leyendecker” into far stranger places than any the Collective has wandered into. Throughout Mirrored he shreds his vocals with the post-human glee of Warp labelmate Jackson and His Computer Band, whether it’s the joyful opening burst of voice on “Ddiamondd” that spits pitch-bent consonants, or “Tij”, where Braxton pants and wheezes in a creeped-out asthmatic lower-register. You couldn’t even approximate “Leyendecker”, or any of Mirrored’s 11 tracks, with just acoustic guitars and voices.
At the same time, listen closely to the intro to “Atlas” and you’ll hear the pedal on Stanier’s kit hitting the kickdrum in the physical world of the studio, pushing air as the hammer connects with the skin. Even when reminiscent of the unfeasible programming of post-drill’n’bass electronica, Battles’ spastic drums are being played in real time, with the brute force and metronome-focus of a guy with a background in heavy rock. But its avant-pop hooks and ultrabrite melodies are being dissembled and reassembled by pitiless CPUs in equally real time. It’s thrilling and disorienting because the virtuosity of both man and machine means that, unlike earlier rock/techno hybrids hampered by both technically unskilled players and crude technology, Battles sound is indivisible. Battles may not be the world’s first bionic rock group, but they’ve done more to extend the idea of a flesh-and-blood band enhanced by computer technology than anyone since the late, lamented Disco Inferno. Mirrored is a breathtaking aesthetic left-turn that sounds less like rock circa 2007 than rock circa 2097, a world where Marshall stacks and micro-processing go hand in hand.