Archive for May, 2011

on Battles, part three

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2011 by darryl zero

I’ve been holding off on this, but I can’t keep it contained any longer.

So what, after all that’s been said and done, do I actually think of Battles’ very long-awaited (four years, but who’s counting?) follow-up to Mirrored?

Well, first and foremost, I want to say that, despite my misgivings about some of the elements that disappeared when Tyondai Braxton left the band, there’s still much to like about their music. We are, after all, talking about three extremely-talented musicians whose body of work before they’d even started the band was significant and notable enough to warrant the title “supergroup.” The same things that each member brought to the table are still there and, in some cases, are even more prevalent; unfortunately, for as much as this works for the band, the points at which it doesn’t work are all the more obvious without a fourth puzzle piece to perhaps obscure them.

Honestly, I’ve gone back-and-forth about how to do this review. My first impulse was to write this as a straight review, much like I always do. I shot that down, of course, because of how different I feel about the band (and, by extension, this album) now as opposed to in the past. I then thought to review the album and completely ignore the aspects of it I absolutely despise, quickly jettisoning the idea because it would be dishonest. In the end, I decided to do what I’m doing now: going through the thing track-by-track, offering commentary as it’s playing in the hope that it helps you (who, for some stupid reason, is reading this) get into my head a bit more.

1) “Africastle”: This song begins the album in the same manner in which the band often began their Mirrored shows: slowly, building the layers as they go along, easing the listener into a melody that will eventually make sense as the song leads up to an eventual release (check that out; don’t worry, I’ll wait for you. Done? Okay, sweet); the inevitable song into which the intro blossoms makes the two minutes of noodling more than worth it. “Africastle” is easily one of the most interesting compositions Battles has ever put together; if I may be so bold, it has the type of sound I originally thought Mirrored would have. Even the song’s understated last minute doesn’t diminish the band’s energy, merely covers the embers to let them smolder.

2) “Ice Cream”: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Everything about this song screams two things: first, IAN WILLIAMS, whose unmistakable guitar minimalism (simple riff, repeated, looped, then regurgitated in a distinctly different form) begins the song, and whose goofiness permeates the entire thing.  Second, COLLASSAL MISSTEP. I even cheated and skipped ahead a track before coming back to it; even within the context of “Africastle” and “Futura,” it makes absolutely no sense. Unless there’s a reason to put a goofy, light-hearted song between two slightly more pensive, lower-key songs. This isn’t even touching Matias Aguayo’s vocals, which sound so out-of-place they’re jarring. It basically sounds like a dance music producer singing silly lyrics (“like a melting ice cream” among them–you can’t fool me, motherfucker–hablo español, y incluyendo el título del canción en las letras del canción es obra del letrista débil) over an otherwise-droll Battles instrumental. I can’t stress this enough–especially after “Africastle” (if not, oh, the band’s first three fucking releases), it’s more than obvious that Battles is quite capable of functioning just fine as an instrumental group. Part of what made Braxton’s input as vocalist feel so natural is that, even when he was singing lyrical vocals, they were more part of the soundscape than something that needed to be up front; in essence, he was a frontman more by default than by design, so sticking a person in front of the band to be a frontperson just emphasizes the difference now that Braxton’s gone. I can’t listen to this piece of shit song all the way through; skipped…

3) “Futura”: Well, this feels like another Ian Williams composition in that it’s got the same kind of “simple riff captured-and-twisted” backbone. This time, it’s in a minor key, and there’s no annoying vocalist spitting inanities at me. The song has an interesting build, and the keyboard sounds are pretty cool, but at this point Williams seems to have regressed back to his childhood days spent in Malawi and is clearly letting that inform his songwriting–which could be cool, but not when left completely ungoverned in what is ostensibly a highly-structured rock album.

4) “Inchworm”: This feels a bit more Konopka-like: the loops build into something a bit more substantial, and the performances feel a bit tighter–even Williams on keys. This sounds more what I’d hoped Battles would do without Braxton, definitely a major-key happy song, but one that showcases the band’s individual talents in an interesting way. Stanier (whose performance on this album has been remarkable in how unadornedly consistent it is) is in top form here, taking the Afro-Beat theme present throughout this album thusfar and making the most of it.

5) “Wall Street”: Hey, this sounds like a familiar sound. Stanier really opens up on that beat, the song is nice and fast, really danceable. Actually, this beat sounds a lot like “Tij” from Mirrored. But that’s okay. The song’s still a hell of a lot of fun, and Williams’ keyboard sounds, again, are gorgeous. Konopka’s loops around which the song is based, though, are the real treat here–of the three remaining members of the “new” Battles, he’s clearly emerging as the dominant musical personality, or at least the most active. The loops themselves aren’t too fancy–complex, yes, but not to the point at which they’re difficult to do live, like the ones in “Ice Cream,” which fail often and easily. (To be fair, I even hated “Ice Cream” when Braxton was still in the band, but check this performance out if you can sit through three minutes of Williams trying to get the loop set.) Furthermore, the parts Konopka plays over them feel like they fit, and aren’t just random plunking.

6) “My Machines”: Okay, here we go–this is the track I’ve been dreading the most, the Gary Numan cameo. Thirty seconds in, we’ve got a drum machine setting the tempo, followed by Stanier rolling on the hi-hat, and Konopka laying down a simple, yet killer bassline. Numan shows up, channeling the same industro-goth thing he’s been doing since 1994, but it actually works. It doesn’t sound like there are any loops on this song at all, really; Williams’ keyboard sounds keep changing, but it doesn’t seem like anything’s really looped at all. Strangely, this feels refreshing, especially when the song completely goes nuts three minutes in before re-setting slightly and dribbling to a conclusion. This was, actually, one of the more interesting tracks on the album; Numan’s vocals are actually mixed in a way that the feel more like a part of the song than the focal point. It may not be as Battles-y as the other songs have been so far, but it’s arguably the most satisfying.

7) “Dominican Fade”: Well, as far as one-minute tracks go, this could be worse. It’s a nice groove, at least, and it comes and goes without much fanfare. The steel drum-type sound on the keyboards is kinda fun–and we have a cowbell sighting!

8) “Sweetie And Shag”: And here we are with another song that might have been an interesting instrumental had the band not decided to throw a guest vocalist on here (in this case, Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino). As far as songs go, this is charming, if not really interesting; the bassline wears out its welcome fast, and Makino’s coos only accentuate how much she ought not to be there, but the song changes pace at about the 2:40 mark, when the band starts following Williams’ keyboard loop rather than Konopka’s bass, and sorta peters out. I’m noticing a somewhat disappointing trend with most of these songs (even the good ones) in that, rather than figure out a way to bring a song to a logical conclusion, the band seems to change everything up and then vamp on it until they eventually just stop. It gives the overall impression that these songs are more structured around loops that sound cool, rather than having a more iron-clad structure. It’s a different approach, and I’m not entirely sure I like it.

9) “Toddler”: Underwhelming. This single-keyboard dick-around feels kinda like Mirrored‘s “Katoman” or EP C‘s “UW”–like it was added to make the album long enough not to be considered an EP. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t stick around long enough to really resonate.

10) “Rolls Bayce”: Another Williams keyboard composition, this gives us the usual palette of Williams keyboard noise, this time accentuated by a Stanier beat that’s actually pretty tight. Still, it kinda sounds like Williams is literally going through every keyboard sound he’s used on the album thusfar and layering loops on top of loops to see what they’d sound like.

11) “White Electric”: Of all the songs on this album, this most sounds like, if it wasn’t co-written by Braxton, than it was most certainly written with him in mind to play on. Konopka’s loop begins the song, although it could have been developed a bit further (perhaps sparing us “Toddler” in the process), and Stanier comes in with a monstrous beat. The first three minutes of this song, in which every member is directly playing off the loop, are some of the best on the album. When everyone explodes into their own thing, the song limps, but the band collects itself quickly before–DAMMIT, they did that “sudden change-up and vamp on something until the end” thing again!

12) “Sundome”: Okay, so this song supposedly has a vocal by Yamantaka Eye, but it sounds more like different samples being played at random intervals. Williams’ sighing, drooping keyboards at the beginning are really cool, as are Konopka’s layered loops (vaguely recalling “Africastle”). This song still feels mostly like a meandering afterthought until three minutes in, when Stanier finally returns and the key changes. Speaking of afterthoughts, Eye’s vocals really don’t add much to the song, other than the odd weird texture–which I suppose is good in that it’s more like what Braxton did. Still, it makes me miss Braxton a lot more than it makes me want to listen to the Boredoms. And I like the Boredoms. Moreover, I’m trying to figure out why the band chose to devote eight minutes to this song, rather than to “White Electric,” which is far cooler and actually feels incomplete. “Sundome” wears out its welcome by the five-minute mark.

And that’s it, I guess. Overall, I feel a little bit better about the band continuing without Braxton, but really wish they hadn’t bothered with the guest vocalists–really, Numan’s the only one that doesn’t wear out his welcome. Also, the songs all had the same kind of feel to them–either they were dominated by Konopka’s slowly-unfolding loops or Williams’ loose, weird-noise freakouts on guitar or keyboard. Which could be worse–I mean, for Pete’s sake, it’s not like it’s the new Don Caballero (ugh)–but, especially following Mirrored (and “The Line”), it doesn’t quite measure up.


On Battles, part two.

Posted in music, nerdiness on May 9, 2011 by darryl zero

Seeing Battles for the first time without Tyondai Braxton threw me for all kinds of loops. For one, I’d heard the new Battles single and hated it. HATED it. Even months later, I still can’t stand it–the arrangement is okay, but the vocals are silly, pandering, and completely uninteresting to a point at which I was disgusted enough with the band to consider not buying the new album. I still stand by that point, to some extent: the band using lyrical vocals in the first place seemed superfluous and confusing until Mirrored‘s second spin through my mp3 player. I thought Battles was perfectly fine as an instrumental group, and thought Braxton’s departure was a telling enough sign that the band could (and should) return to that dynamic–that is, unless Williams or any other of the existing members wanted to sing. My acquisition of Gloss Drop, if nothing else, actually encouraged me to buy the album; much like Mirrored, it’s mostly an instrumental affair, one that finds the band (in particular Dave Konopka, who seems to have inherited the majority of song-propulsion duties from Braxton) in top form on their multiple instruments. Still, as the band took the stage at the Doug Fir on May 4th, I had my doubts.

Konopka got things going (as he usually does) with a slow, pitchshifted extended intro that the band eventually warped into “Africastle.” The song (also Gloss Drop‘s leadoff track) easily stands out as one of the band’s best ever and, while I’d have preferred to have heard it later on in the show, it did do a lot to whet the fans’ appetites (I’ll get to that later). The bizarre intro highlighted one distinct change from the Braxton era–minus one member, the band seemed more comfortable jamming their way in-and-out of songs, for good or ill (I’ll get to that later). “Africastle” ended, and then the band immediately launched into “Sweetie and Shag,” one of the weaker tracks on Gloss Drop (and the first in the band’s set to feature one of the replacement vocalists). Much to the crowd’s (or, at least my) surprise, a video of Kazu Makino popped up on screens behind Stanier, allowing us to watch as she cooed her way through the song. While such theatrics are normally distracting and annoying at a smaller rock show, this actually proved to be interesting and entertaining, if only because Williams seemed to be able to control the video at will (either that, or he had a great rapport with the tech near him, just offstage). In fact, since Makino’s vocals were mixed far lower live than they were on the album, the whole song ended up sounding better. Williams’ control over the vocal samples became obvious after the song properly ended, when he slowed the Makino down to a crawl, with the video doing the same, providing an interesting bridge into “Wall Street.”

While “Wall Street” is one of the new album’s highlights (even if it does seem like a subtle dig, or at least a reference, to Braxton), the live performance ended up being somewhat lacking, largely due to the looser playing style. Williams got lost in the middle of the song amidst his own keyboard noodling; while Stanier and Konopka were able to pull him back in to finish it, a band like Battles, that requires precision playing to keep time amidst the various loops, doesn’t really have much room for error. The instrumental jam following the song was pretty cool, but then Williams slowly began the opening chords of “Ice Cream,” bringing me (and only me–I freely admit to being in the minority on this one) to a crashing halt. Matias Aguayo popped up on the video screens, the white hipsters in the crowd lost their shit, and the band pretty much lost me.

It drove home a painful point: that Battles is a pop group, now, and clearly playing to the audience that likes their music, even supposedly ‘edgy’ independent music, easily-digested and, well, glossy. While this isn’t entirely a bad thing–lords know everyone in the band put in their dues and deserve to make money off their music–it also means the complexity of the band’s music has ceased to be its selling point, highlighting a role Braxton played that’s no longer there. Makino and Aguayo are hardly bad musicians, but their roles in Battles’ music could not have been more clearly tacked-on and unnecessary, to the point at which their presence as disconnected, easily-manipulated video images was enough; while Braxton’s presence meant the band couldn’t be as loose with certain sonic elements, the sheer fact that he was able to create the sounds that he did live was a sight (and sound) to behold, treating his voice the same way he treated his keyboards or guitar. It was strange, beautiful and, even when it was poppy, it was still challenging.

Following “Ice Cream,” Williams created an admittedly entertaining loop of segments of Aguayo’s vocal parts that got my interest just in time for Konopka to begin “Inchworm,” the song that most displays the new Battles at its finest: creating pretty, danceable pop songs using sweet sounds and clever technology. It’s a beautiful song, and the band handled it wonderfully, but I was already emotionally on my way out the door, pausing only when they played “My Machines,” the only Gloss Drop song with guest vocals that actually works. Gary Numan’s face appeared onscreen, of course, still in the gothed-out makeup he’s been wearing since the 80’s, and I got a kick out of one last jolt of energy, but then that was it. The band methodically plodded their way through “Futura,” disappeared for a few minutes, then came back out for an encore.

Something very telling happened before the band began to play again: Williams picked up the mic after hearing a request for “Tonto” (one of Mirrored‘s singles) and politely said, among other things “we’re playing all these songs because we just got out of the studio [a blatant lie, as Gloss Drop has been in the can for months], and that’s what’s on our minds.” At that point, with Stanier not yet having retaken the stage, I knew right away that “Sundome” was going to be the encore, and that going to the bathroom was more important than watching Williams and Konopka horse around with loops for five minutes. As I passed the empty merch table, I shook my head; the band hadn’t even bothered to bring any tangible reminders for people to buy, which was perfectly fine, but still disappointing. It was the first Battles show (or the first show of any band) I’ve ever been to in which the headlining band had absolutely no merch to sell.

I finished my business and stood by the door as the band finished “Sundome.” My friend Nate walked up to me with a lady in tow. “1939 Ensemble [the opener] blew these guys away,” he said, before disappearing into the night.

I nodded, not necessarily agreeing, but not sufficiently blown away by Battles to really disagree, either. Considering Battles was, for the longest time, a band I fought so hard to get other people to pay attention to, I felt surprised at how indifferent I’d felt at the end of the show. I didn’t have my hopes completely dashed from a musical standpoint, but I wasn’t really interested in what was going on–and, maybe, that’s what makes me feel worst about the whole thing.

On Battles, part one.

Posted in music, nerdiness on May 9, 2011 by darryl zero

I can’t remember when I first heard of Battles; it would have to have been before mid-2003. I’m going to say it was mid-2002 or so, because I was doing some digging and looking for anything on Ian Williams. I was a huge fan of Storm and Stress at that point, just coming down from the high of obsessively listening to Don Caballero and appreciating the direction Williams was taking with his music. Of course, I was unaware that Storm and Stress was completely kaput at that point (and still can’t figure out why–I remember reading some rumor that the bassist slept with the drummer’s wife, but that’s neither hither nor yon), so you can imagine my impatience. If you’re reading this, you know I’m something of an obsessive about the music I love and to which I listen–if I love something, I have to know everything there is to know about it, and if I really love it, I turn it into my oxygen, my fucking life’s blood, and I immerse myself in it and make it a part of me. That’s how I was about Storm and Stress, how I was about American Don (the last Don Caballero album–fuck you, Damon Che), and how I generally was about Williams. So, when I heard that he finally had a new project going on, and it involved the drummer from Helmet and the son of Anthony Braxton, I was, if you’ll excuse the expression, jazzed, and I couldn’t wait for something to come out. But that’s exactly what I had to do. The band had set up a website by that point, barely updated and with a bunch of cool photos and nothing else, and no record label or magazine seemed to be printing anything about them, despite their status as a “supergroup” (an annoying label that persists to this day). I checked that website pretty much constantly for months, and annoyed the living shit out of record store clerks (mostly Jason Buehler at O3 Records) asking when the band was going to release their EP’s. When I finally, FINALLY got EP C in my hands, it was like my brain melted; it was one of the first times I’d anticipated a record so thoroughly and it had been exactly what I’d wanted it to be.

I saw Battles a couple times during that time period–both opening spots, both at well-known-yet-smaller venues (Dante’s, Berbati’s Pan), and one thing stood out about them other than the fact that they really ought to have been headlining: that there was an interesting disconnect between them and the audience. Drummer John Stanier’s perpetual scowl, Dave Konopka’s determined focus on manipulating his pedals and Ian Williams’ spaced-out seeming disinterest made it seem, regardless of whether or not it was true, like the band were really simply there performing for their own reasons, powering through challenging songs simply because they could. Having come to the band through Ian Williams, I was simultaneously not surprised and nonetheless let down a bit by the approach. Naturally, I gravitated toward Tyondai Braxton, not only because he was the youngest member of the group (close to my age), not only because he was the only member of the group that sang, not only because he was the only member of the band who seemed to be of mixed ethnicity, but because he was the only member of the group that actually engaged the audience on any level. Even off-stage, he was the closest thing the band had to a frontman: I ran into him walking across a bridge immediately before my first time seeing the band, and he was not only engaging and funny, but seemed genuinely pleased to be in a band, and grateful to have fans in the first place.

Anyone that actually cares enough to have read this far will undoubtedly know how this story continues: three-plus years after they debut, Battles signs to Warp and releases Mirrored, incorporating lyrical vocals into their sound and thus gaining the interest of hipsters that need an ostensible frontpersonality to gravitate toward in order to infer some stylistic sense to ape or rate. Pitchfork loves the album and the band finally gets the love and respect they deserve, and suddenly the band’s playing bigger venues. Braxton finally finds the time to release Central Market to considerable acclaim, establishing a foothold in the realm of modern-day composers and warping people’s ideas of what composed “new music” can be. Battles takes their usual forever-and-a-day to record the follow-up to Mirrored, culminating in Braxton deciding he wanted to leave the band rather than embark on an epic world tour and neglect his solo career again.

Interestingly, despite my affinity for Braxton (and my appreciation for his solo music, which had grown in the many years between Battles releases into something greater than my love for Williams’ work), I actually thought his leaving Battles could still be good for the band. With Braxton emerging as the charismatic focus of the group’s energies, the band’s direction quickly seemed to be limiting some of the other members to side player roles whether it was Braxton’s intent (which was unlikely) or not. Williams seemed to be particularly relegated by the situation; despite his unmistakable stamp (to anyone who knew or cared) on many of Battles’ compositions, his disassociative personality often got lost, and his notoriously abstract performances, while mercifully reined in by necessity among the band’s taught compositions, occasionally seemed out-of-place or needlessly dissonant. Moreover, Braxton, while a phenomenally interesting live performer, never seemed to fit the mold of indie-rock icon; his own contributions to the Battles ethic were meticulously crafted, more suited as part of an ensemble playing longer-form pieces than what were, in essence, pop rock songs. While he clearly seemed to enjoy playing with the band, the responsibilities intrinsic to being a pop rock frontman clearly weren’t the ones he wanted to continue facing. While there’s no doubt in my mind that Battles could have continued to release great music with Braxton (their last song with him being a great example), his departure meant the band could go back to being the instrumental combo they began as and still sound as complete as they did with Braxton.

That is, until I heard the band was going to use other voices to complete songs begun with Braxton.


Posted in Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 by darryl zero

It doesn’t matter.

The realization sunk in the other day as I was bitterly bemoaning some simple, innocuous item I’ve known as fact for the vast majority of my life, predating even my so-called “adult” existence. The truth of it all, for all my need to understand and parse data, is that it doesn’t matter. None of it.

I’m not speaking abstractly, here. I’m calling upon all my linear directness. Nothing I know, think, or care about really matters. I mean, I suppose that’s the burden of the English major, but even then, I’d think there was actually something in this skull of mine that was good or useful for anything other than trivia contests, inane rants, or prattling blog posts. I’ve spent 30 years hoping, if not praying, that there was some practical use of the knowledge that Les Claypool was one audition away from joining Metallica, or that the truck whose explosive crash gave Matt Murdock his powers (and stripped him of his sight) also caused the toxic waste spill that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or even that Maximilien Robespierre was an unabashed crazy-ass bad motherfucker, but I cannot find a single one.

It doesn’t matter. None of it.

Days removed from the realization, the pain has dulled some, but one incontrovertible fact remains: everything I care about, everything of interest to me, that feeds everything I teach to people and try to explain, is completely irrelevant. Everything I have told my high schoolers, everything I tell my middle-schoolers, everything I require my preschoolers to practice has its roots in a foundational base of useless information. Everything I talk, think, and worry about is as useful as the thoughts themselves–ephemeral, intangible, and ultimately forgotten.

None of it matters.

So, nearly halfway through my life, I’m faced with a question–if nothing I’ve spent the past three decades preparing myself to be is of any use, what does that make me? What does a useless person do? Is there a chance that I could, for instance, change my direction, pushing myself toward something relevant or useful? Is it worth the effort, now that my most capable years are quickly coming to an end?

That’s a question easily-answered: no.

It’s presumptuous of me to even suggest I deserve to continue to function, really, when nothing I have or can provide is of any substantial importance or use. In an age in which any fact may be recalled on devices smaller than my hand, in a time in which time itself is of little consequence, at a point in history in which history itself has been relegated to mere footnotes chronicled on the most fragile of media, there is no point in having people use resources whose only true skill is to be able to crudely ape the functions of things designed to replace them. In short: I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t deserve to continue to use food, water, and oxygen, striving only to create more of myself so that they may either continue my uselessness or repudiate it. If I look outside the window, or at a newspaper, or even my own dim, meandering future and all I see is more of the same purposelessness…then what?

At this point, I continue merely to see what happens next, existing solely so that the rudeness of my disdain for this newer, sleeker, shallower, faster, imprecise world may, at the very least, annoy the living shit out of people. But what happens when the novelty of that ends?