Occasionally, just occasionally, the great subterranean machine that picks the NME’s single of the week throws a wobbly, and before the evil technicians that maintain it can repair it, fires off a left-field pick straight to the heart of the printers. Improbable? Sure, but it’s the best explanation that I can come up with for Battles‘ Atlas getting the SOTW treatment.
Atlas is the second track on the quartet’s first album, Mirrored. Having listened to their previous release on Warp, a collection of their B and C EPs called, somewhat inevitably, EP C/B, I’d been pretty underwhelmed. The playing was good, the songs were fine, but Battles seemed unable to decide on whether they were a free-jazz improv outfit, a minimalist techno combo, or a bunch of post-rockers that had bought tickets but managed to miss the bandwagon by several years. I had them filed under ‘M’ for ‘Meh’.
Happily, on Mirrored, they manage to skip across the file entries to ‘M’ for ‘Magnificent’. Because, perhaps through some team-building paintball, or rebirthing, or channeling Thetans or something, Battles have found themselves. Where before they gave the distinct feel of a quick side-project for a bunch of talented musicians who were currently in other bands (Battles’ list of side-projects/other groups/guest musician slots is boggling in its complexity), on Mirrored it’s clear that their hearts and souls are in every one of these songs.
And songs they are, somewhat surprisingly, although you won’t find anything approaching sentences, couplets, or even words. On most of the album’s tracks Tyondai Braxton’s hums and haws are fed through various studio boxes and manipulated to the point where he becomes another instrument in the mix. On opener Race:In he sounds like a choir of eunuchs singing some warm-up exercises. The rest of the band whistle along in the background: Ian William’s guitars line skitter nervously, anchored by John Stanier’s restrained, powerful drumming.
As awesome as Race: In is, however, nothing, nothing can quite prepare you for the sturm und drang of Atlas (Factoid: guitarist Ian Williams is also in a group called Storm and Stress. Thanks for that, Wikipedia). It’s Terry Riley‘s In C as interpreted by The Glitter Band. Stanier pounds his drums like they slept with his sister while Braxton decides to do his party impression of Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins, his vocals hovering tantalisingly near interpretability. Just when you think it has to stop, it pulls in its gut and starts again. With feeling. As I finish writing this sentence, it has annexed the Sudetenland and is turning its hungry eyes towards Austria.
But Mirrored has a lot more than just powerful anthems. Ddiamondd (which I have actually spelt correctly) manages to combine what sounds like a verse from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with the sound of a mechanic tuning Braxton’s motorbike – while Rocket From the Crypt play next door. Really. Tonto, on the other hand, is a sprawling melange where the drums take more of a back seat, leaving space for William’s great guitar playing to come to the fore. The second half of the album has its ups and downs (Rainbow, for example: a track that has me hovering between love and hate every time I play it).
But ultimately Mirrored is a success. Whether you’re someone that already loves instrumental avant-garde rock, or you just liked the truly bonkers video for Atlas and want to check out the rest of the band’s work, you’re likely to find something you like here.