I have a curious relationship with avant-garde music, in that I prefer reading about it than listening to it. Steve Reich and John Cage may be jolly bright and conceptual people, but their playfulness operates on a different plane from my brain.
Battles, the math rock supergroup, now reduced to a trio after the sudden departure of sort-of-frontman Tyondai Braxton, are to release a long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Mirrored. It is called Gloss Drop, and it apparently shows a more accessible side of the band, unafraid of poppy hooks. This doesn’t mean it will get played on the radio. Back in 2007, when I first heard “Atlas” (it was iTunes’s free single of the week, as I recall), I thought this was exactly the kind of cybernetic glam-rock people outside of alternative music might fall for. I suspect I was mistaken.
Anyway, way before Mirrored, Battles were a pretty difficult band to get your head around. But if you gave them more than even the time of day, they repaid you with the most skilfully arranged barrage of bewildering time-signatures, insect-like guitar interplay, and exotic noises. And, at their most avant-garde, onto the end of 2006’s EP C / B EP, they tacked on a nine-minute bender called “Fantasy”.
“Fantasy” takes as its single building block, a sample of Braxton beat-boxing, but with it, it creates an entire black hole that turns nine minutes into a lifetime. The song is austere, and doesn’t fool you with red herrings or stems of melodies that dissipate. No, “Fantasy” is relentlessly rhythmic, pummelling you into oblivion, or an aneurysm. Occasionally, a snippet of the sample gets locked into a kind of feedback loop. At other times, there are microscopic fragments of real drum sounds. Eventually, you really don’t care. Strangely, as painful as it gets, you never want the song to stop, either.
This is the age-old custom of the drum circle, updated for the ProTools generation, and it’s unstoppable. More to the point, if you step back and forget that it was crafted by a group of guys who had spent the previous two decades making music in the basic tradition of rock, you could easily confuse “Fantasy” for a work by Reich or some other notoriously difficult avant-garde composer.
There is an excellent interview with the remaining members of Battles here, written up by Simon Jay Catling on The Quietus.