Back in 2008, when they released their third album Dear Science, the world was justifiably TV On The Radio’s to take. The album was a bold statement as to the waters in which rock music should tread—sonically and politically bold—and it was also enormously fun. I saw TV On The Radio for the first time not long after, and the show was a heady carnival of funk and philosophy. They were staking a claim, unintentionally or no, to be the greatest band in the world.
I saw them for the second time Sunday just gone. The energy is still there, fizzing out of Tunde Adebimpe’s pores and limbs, but they now channel it into being just a great stadium rock band, albeit one that plays the Camden Roundhouse rather than Wembley, their showmanship not matched by the size of their audience. Circumstance, and a morsel of reduced ambition, put paid to them conquering the world.
A year before Dear Science, another band pushed the boundaries of guitar-based music, only to end up treading water: Battles. Their debut long-player, Mirrored, stands for an interrobang; its follow-up, Gloss Drop, a mere, playfully quizzical, question mark. A song-title from each album could serve as an alternative metaphor: the exploratory “Atlas” vs. the excitable but unfulfilled “Toddler”.
Now, they return with “The Yabba”, the opening track from their third album La Di Da Di, and they demand to be taken seriously once more. The composition is a dazzling refraction of the Spaghetti Western; a second reboot after Tortoise’s own desiccation of the desert on 2001’s Standards.
Technically, “The Yabba” is another revelation. A brash buzz of feedback hovers and oscillates before unpackaging itself into an arpeggiated loop. The time signature morphs like plasticine. John Stanier’s drums waver between jazzy toms, a Bonham-esque crunch, and a flailing assault on the senses. The track slithers through harsh sand dunes and the blurry promise of a mirage, the frazzled hallucination of the rambler and the laser-guided efficiency of the sidewinder. It collapses rather like a supernova, keys spiralling heavenwards and the faintest echo of the track’s genesis still audible.
In its playful experimentation and constructed deconstruction, it’s a thrilling masterpiece. The context is clear: hip hop has stolen the limelight on the world’s stage, but Battles can take it back.