At first glance, EP C/B EP appears to be a classic old-school Warp release. Minimalist track names jump out, like B+T, TRAS, TRAS 2, TRAS 3, just like the old days when every piece of computer music, thanks to Mr Gates, had a track name with a maximum of eight characters. Certainly the first echoes of SZ2 would live quite happily on the Aphex Twin‘s second volume of Ambient Works.
To classify this album as another in a long line of esoteric bleep-fests, however, would be quite wrong. For a start, Battles are a proper live band, one with quite a pedigree at that. Also, whilst the tracks here regularly visit the traditional music concrete that characterises Warp’s early output, they branch out into all sorts of different directions – from jazzy and heavy to downright weird.
Battles is the brainchild of guitar experimentalist Ian Williams (formerly of Don Caballero) and features Tomahawk‘s (and formerly Helmet‘s) John Stanier on drums, David Konopka from Lynx and Tyondai Braxton. This album constitutes the European release of their first three EPs split across two discs. B EP opener SZ2 is a perfect introduction to the Battles sound, as across its nine minutes it moves from the tentative stirrings of a mysterious ambient beast past sleigh bells into a prog-jazz fest over a powerful bludgeon of a drum-beat, with more than a dash of Helmet about it. About six minutes in it picks up pace again, entering into funky drum ‘n’ bass territory as a bare guitar and bass harmony pick out a snappy rhythm over Stanier’s super-precise artillery fire.
TRAS 3 is a short ambient guitar ditty with lots of echo. IPT2 is positively whimsical, like a Battles version of an autumnal stroll through Central Park. In contrast, the twelve minute BTTLS provides a menacing soundtrack to all those film-sequences where the naïve adventurer moves further down the dark sewer canal, to where the beast with very big teeth is lurking.
DANCE is another showcase for Stanier’s awe-inspiring precision drumming, which is even more impressive when you consider his habit of placing his crash symbol so high up he has to leap in the air to hit it. Despite bringing to mind a malicious rebellion by the Weather Report rhythm section, it’s also very Warp. TRAS then closes the first CD with three and a half minutes of Helmet-jazz.
On to C EP, B+T gives another jam of off-kilter guitar breaks over a rock-solid breakbeat. UW is back into ambient soundtrack territory, this time evoking a more space-opera than gothic horror atmosphere – like BTTLS it feels as though there’s a narrative thread to the piece, though it’s not exactly obvious what it might be. HI/LO is a slower-paced prog-funk jam, and IPT-2 is a cut-up cacophony of backwards-guitars. TRAS 2 provides the straightest rock groove of the album, at least to start with, before it too starts to break up.
Notably different from the rest is closing track FANTASY. FANTASY and TRAS were originally released together (making up the third EP after B and C). It is the most traditionally Warp sounding track here; a minimalist nine-minute techno groove that recalls Plastikman, early Luke Vibert or the Aphex Twin in his I Care Because You Do days. The unmistakable sound of a TR-909 kick drum seems odd on an album full of organic, live percussion but it dominates FANTASY nonetheless, and is the last sound heard as the album fades to a close.
Battles are said to be an electrifying band to see live, and from the music present here that’s not hard to imagine. Blending experimental rock, funk and jazz with the brain-tinkering ambience of old-school electronic soundscapes, this is probably Warp’s wisest signing in years, and a great record to boot.