This piece was originally published on the 10th of September 2015 by The 405.
BBC Television Centre, November 2007. A virtually unknown band from New York City has been invited to perform on Later… with Jools Holland alongside the likes of Richard Thompson, Róisín Murphy, and Crowded House. They look completely out of place in such company, not at all unlike four nerdy A/V club kids trying to impress their parents with a daunting melange of effects pedals, electric guitars, synthesisers, laptops, and towering amplifiers (and not to mention the one solitary drum kit). They sound it, too, as the song they play is both incredibly complicated and aesthetically baffling – a whimsical amalgamation of glam, progressive rock, and all manner of other eccentricities. It’s a triumphant display of technical proficiency – a playful construction of syncopated rhythms, looping, and evolving melodies – but also a test of stamina at eight minutes long. With the exception of the drummer, each member has to juggle multiple responsibilities, but they seem overwhelmed by the task. The song isn’t being performed as much as fought; for all the band’s electronic equipment, it feels alive and untamed, refusing to sit still with the addition of new elements. They linger on a precipice of disaster until the song is finished with them, expending all their energy on maintaining a semblance of control, and when the house lights go up the audience goes fucking wild.
As you’ve undoubtedly guessed by now, those nerdlingers were Battles, and the song in question was ‘Atlas’, the lead single from their debut album Mirrored (and one of the great songs of the twenty-first century thus far). It’s certainly among the most remarkable performances in Later’s history, but what’s arguably most fascinating about it from today’s perspective is that it reveals how little the spirit of Battles actually changed in the intervening eight years. That is to say, while the departure of frontman Tyondai Braxton necessitated their transformation into a three-piece five years ago, this performance emphasises that Battles will always be at their best when their immaculate constructions are imbued with jeopardy – a pervasive sense that they’re pushing their technical virtuosity to the limit and struggling to hold everything together. And indeed, because their use of technology positions them at the point where human possibilities are exhausted and digital possibilities only begin, they’re able to navigate astonishingly complex and constantly evolving compositions with a relentlessness that, in the controlled environment of a studio, evokes the volatility and potential disarray of a live performance. They obviously sound cleaner and more precise on their two previous records, Mirrored and Gloss Drop, but the songs still surprise as if they’re being jammed out for the first time, and, crucially, still demonstrate the travails of the musicians attempting to keep a handle on their creations.
All of which is an incredibly protracted way of introducing the qualities that by and large elude Battles’ third album, La Di Da Di. It seems somewhat unchallenging by their high standards, more controlled and therefore incapable of generating a consistent sense of chaos or urgency. More than ever, the band seems content to repeat a melody and suggest progression by introducing brief, admittedly colourful flourishes before ultimately returning to a slightly altered form of that initial melody. It finds Battles completely besotted with repetition, but manifesting their fascination in tracks that meander around the kind of ideas that would have constituted transitory phases within their older songs. The shorter tracks are worst afflicted in this respect: you may listen to ‘Tyne Wear’, or ‘Tricentennial’, for example, and initially identify them as introductions to Battles’ patented Seven Minute Epics® – after all, the band aren’t strangers to using repetition as a means of creating suspense – only to realise seconds later that you’ve listened to the entire thing. Along with ‘Dot Net’, ‘Cacio e Pepe’, and ‘Non-Violence’, these tracks invite the listener in with Battles’ characteristic effervescence, but they alienate just as easily because they develop in ways that are either utterly insubstantial or too understated to fully register. They’re not static, exactly, but they lack compositional endeavour; the band promptly settles on a motif and drains it of whatever compelling qualities it once possessed, leaving the song bereft of purpose and the listener largely unsatisfied.
Which is not to say these songs are unpleasant, that would be unfair given the vividness of Battles’ sonic palette. In terms of the surface tones and textures, the tracks in question are interesting enough – pretty, even. The underlying structures that govern these tones and textures, however, don’t allow for anything approaching the band’s typical intensity. And this much is exposed by the track list, which cruelly places the most indulgently repetitive songs directly after the few truly dynamic ones. Early on, for example, there’s a great one-two punch formed of ‘FF Bada’ and ‘Summer Simmer’, tracks that sound unencumbered and more substantial than most because they’re constructed with a velocity and precision that would be irreconcilable they weren’t written and performed by Battles. But while they’re unequivocally thrilling – somehow managing to both luxuriate in several wonderful ideas at once and move with a constant sense of purpose (thank God for drummer John Stanier) – their flow is immediately blocked by the next track: the enervating, interminably languid breather ‘Cacio e Pepe’. This may have been tolerable if it were an isolated incident, but tracks such as ‘Cacio e Pepe’ constitute half of La Di Da Di’s track list. The record is peppered with an inertia that significantly disrupts the momentum generated by ‘FF Bada’ and ‘Summer Simmer’, or even the less ecstatic but no less enjoyable ‘Dot Com’ and ‘The Yabber’, marking the whole experience of the album as something of a slog.
It’s worth noting here that La Di Da Di is Battles’ first entirely instrumental album, and their first instrumental release since the EP C/B EP compilation was released in 2006. While that might seem like a minor detail – given that their second record, Gloss Drop, included only four vocal features, it would have been difficult to argue that vocals represented an essential component of the band – the absence of the human voice on La Di Da Di really does feel significant. To be sure, when the album so desperately lacks dynamism and, I suppose, the humanity of a band putting everything they have into the performance of a ridiculously complicated song (and the awe of hearing them pull it off), vocals could have brought a different energy or texture to some of its more unremarkable numbers. They also could have provided a decent distraction whenever a concept fails to sustain the the length of its song (‘Tricentennial’), or when a track feels slaved over to the extent that it’s domesticated and devoid of all life (‘Dot Net’). That’s obviously not to say that vocals would have functioned as some kind of ubiquitous remedy for the album, because that would be totally incorrect. In their absence, however, La Di Da Di’s shortcomings are more visible than they would have been otherwise, exposing Battles as almost entirely uninterested in ceding to spontaneity, as more capable of controlling their songs than they’ve ever been, but all the more uninspiring for it.