SummaryIt's official: in 2007, it's all come full circle. Prog rock has made its way into the indie scene. Battles' Mirrored, their debut full-length after three EPs, makes that plain. Messrs. John Stanier of Helmet and Tomahawk, guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams of Don Caballero and Storm & Stress, guitarist David Konopka of Lynx, and avant solo musician Tyondai Braxton have constructed an album that combines the best of Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma, Krautrock, and math rock, while coming up with something that stands so far out on the fringe that it is in a league of its own. That so much of this music is created via the magic of software and combined with one- or two-note keyboard and guitar patterns makes it the Philip K. Dick equivalent of modern rock. The intro, "Race: In," comes flying out of the box with a series of rim shots and repetitive guitar lines before Braxton comes whistling into the front end. This is a Disney tune for Snow White by the Seven Dwarfs run amok. The abstract patterns introduced by the keyboards and bassline serve to underscore the melody, complex though it may be, and the sampling sound of hammers creates, at least momentarily, the image of "Whistle While You Work" before the guitars enter full bore and transform it into a full-blown prog jam with tight turns, momentary riffs all the while keeping a motorik drumbeat whether on a snare or a tom-tom. The whistling and wordless vocals that reflect another set of keyboard sounds add depth, humor, and warmth to this underground rainbow. On "Atlas," the title track from the band's last EP, the sound is one of futuristic dragon music à la the conceits of T. Rex without the clever lyrics. Here, the drum shuffle of so many great T. Rex tunes introduces a single guitar riff, warped by sonics and growled vocals that sound like a pig snorting. The intoxication of rhythm is inescapable, even as the David Seville Chipmunk-style vocals -- which could be backmasked -- create a progression for the tune to lift off from. It's tribal and slick, both at the same time. There is even a manipulated -- via the wonders of electronics -- "oo-ay-oo" from "The Wizard of Oz" scene where the evil Wicked Witch of the West henchmen sing as they march in guard formation around her dark palace.
But this music is anything but dark. It's insistent, playful, and planned down to the distorted bass loop and pulsing guitar and keyboard notes that are layered on top in single- or double-note formations. Indeed, Mirrored is the place -- the very terrain -- where nerd science meets rock, and it's a gas. It's the amalgam of "merry melodies" that grabs the listener, even to the point of forgetting how many different arrays of percussion and electric string and keyboard instruments are being played on each and every tune. The sprint that is "Ddiamondd" could be in Christian Vander's Zeuhl dialect, with some of nastiest keyboard bass since the Beastie Boys' "Party's Gettin' Rough." One can hear strains of Gentle Giant in the way vocal harmonies are carefully layered to provide a counterpoint to the knotty riffs being executed. "Tonto" is an exception, where Asian, early American folk melody, and contrapuntal interplay create a long journey into some instrumental netherworld where rhythm and sound don't so much come to a conclusion as collide in variations of tempo and modal changes. "Rainbow" is the albums's longest and most chaotic track, yet it's utterly infectious listening as guitars roar and whoosh through the top of the mix. Rhythmic invention undercuts them and directs the shifts in tempo and even key. In contrast, "Bad Trails," with its synth loop providing a hypnotic inroad into Braxton's singing and shifting strands of guitar, bass, and synth lines, is a bona fide song. "Race: Out," the album's final cut, begins largely as an electronically manipulated exercise is backward tape manipulation; but this is all digital, folks, until the drums enter full bore announcing in short rolls on the toms that something else is about to occur -- and it does. Everything shifts into forward motion again on a dime and the instruments engage each other in a labyrinthine dance of cheap keyboard themes and tight, knotty guitar inventions. Pattern after pattern is introduced, played until it becomes rote, and then shifts itself, by only a couple of notes, into something entirely different as sounds, soundscapes, and instruments engage one another in call-and-response until a fade into silence. Mirrored is unlike any recording out there at the moment. It's loud, funny, and astonishingly sophisticated, and doesn't feel pretentious in the least. Never has the wall of electronic futurism sounded so organic or musical. The album's many influences offer only guide posts, as Battles have their own unique image of a sound universe that one can play in as well as be awed by.