"You hear the stories about walking into the room and seeing the magic," says Battles drummer John Stanier, the final member to join the New York–based quartet four years ago. "That wasn't the case for us. No one knew what they wanted to do. No one had any idea of what would happen. We knew it would take a minute."
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Indeed, there were more than a few technical obstacles for Battles to overcome initially: Stanier had never played in a band with keyboards, and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton, son of the legendary jazz player Anthony Braxton, was an experimental jazz solo artist who had never even played in a band. But given that the rest of the band included guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, the former Don Caballero guitarist who remains a legend to "math-rock" devotees and shredders for his unique fret tapping, and guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka, from the instrumental band Lynx (coincidentally described by allmusic.com as having the "rhythmic mind of Don Caballero"), it wasn't as though any of the pedigreed members lacked the know-how to eventually find their way.
"All the elements were there," says Stanier. "Everyone's individual styles were already dialed, and everyone had already mastered their instruments. It was like four really strong dials being thrown in together."
But due to Stanier's obligatory recording and touring duties as a continuing member of Tomahawk, Battles, mentally and physically, could only blossom over time. "There were these really big gaps in the beginning—that's a big reason why it took a really long time," he says. "But I think that helped us because it gave us time away from this very slow, simmering project that is just now exploding. It's almost like Battles is the perfect stew."
The band's debut full-length, Mirrored, released more than a month ago on the legendary, forward-thinking British label Warp, is evidence of the band's bubbling progression, stirred up three years after releasing one single ("Tras") and two domestically released EPs (EP C, followed by B EP), which Warp compiled and issued all in one last year as EP C/B EP.
Battles have both dazzled and bewildered audiences since the beginning, with a vast and unsuspecting lot of instrumental musical dialogues that tackle the complexities of progressive rock and math rock and the virtuosic unorthodoxy of free jazz. With its crunchy guitar conversations and cluttered mess of synths and spazzing electronics, the music sounds like the band threw everything it knew into a bag like Scrabble tiles, picking out each part randomly, albeit thoughtfully.
"The tricky thing is the arrangement, the trimming of all the unnecessary fat. Do you stop, or do you continue; or is this too crazy, or is this fun?," says Stanier, "Those are all afterthoughts after everything is thrown into the pot. We have these giant charts on the wall where we name the parts, and they take on a life of their own."
Whereas the band's earlier EPs were primarily instrumental affairs, Mirrored takes Battles into new aesthetic realms, where Braxton's voice is brought in as an instrument all its own. Kicking off the album is the aptly titled "Race: In," which opens with whistles (not of the poppy Peter Bjorn and John variety) and Stanier's precise snare rim shots, unfolding into a maelstrom of twisted post-rock grooves and vocal harmonies that bounce off and into one another and resonate through effects. The strangely addictive, elf-afflicted vocals give a personality to the band's meaty seven-minute single, "Atlas," and on Ddiamondd," Braxton's hyperspeed wordplay and swirling whistles engage in direct syncopation with the band's propulsive and chugging energy. And that's just the first three of 11 songs on Mirrored.
"There's a little playful element to Battles," says Stanier. "I think the one thing that we've kind of achieved, the vibe we want to give off, is that we're giving today's music something new. It does not have to be really pretentious and high-brow. We're trying to do something interesting and new because it's fun for us. Some people might think that it is pretentious, but we go out of our way to make it so it's not that. We just want to have fun."