Battles: The Greatest Band on the Planet

It’s a tough time to be a rock band right now. The whole garage revival thing that was all the rage around 2000 has pretty much died down as more and more musicians realize there’s more to it than putting a plural noun after the word “The” and calling yourself a band. The Internet has made it so any Joe Schmo with a computer and a cord can record an album and sell it to the world on iTunes, but there’s so much of it out there, it’s damn near impossible to sort out what’s really the best (unless Apple does it for you in a TV commercial). Oh, and Battles is around, so every other band in the world has to live up to their new standard. Because Battles is the greatest band on the planet.

Are the members of Battles the world’s most technically skilled musicians? Probably not. Does Battles make the best music on Earth? I love their tunes, but I couldn’t argue that their songwriting itself is the absolute BEST, nope. But as a band, a group, a collective, four individuals musically congealed into a single, breathing, siamise-like thinking unit, they are THE greatest, the #1, with very little doubt. In fact, no doubt. Battles is the greatest band on the planet.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you haven’t even heard of them (which is likely, and I recognize and respect that.. “Best instrumental math-rock group” isn’t exactly its own Grammy category yet), Battles is something of an indie / prog supergroup, a quartet consisting of members of other moderately well-known (but no less super) groups called Don Caballero, Lynx and, perhaps most notably, Helmet. (Remember “Unsung”??? You would if you heard it, trust me. Youtube that shit.) On the surface, their music is a mixture of complex rhythms, wacky time signatures, machinery-like sounds, strange but impressive unison riffs, something that I guess you could classify as “abstract vocals”… and more… all held together by eight good ears, a brilliant sense of structure, and, sometimes, believe it or not, a hook!

Those are a lot of adjectives, and nouns I turned into adjectives, but I think what it all means, basically, is you have to hear/see it to understand. Listen to 2007’s “Mirrored” (best album of last year) and you might have a better understanding.

Better, yes, but not complete. For the techies out there, it gets even better. One look at the album art from the aforementioned disc and you’ll see that Battles take quite a bit of pride in their gear — all their guitars, keyboards, amps, pedals and other fun stuff — most likely because it’s so fundamental to the sound they create. But unlike some of these other literally “electronic” artists with cool gear out there, Battles create everything live, with some nasty tricks up their sleeves. A few strums on some strings, a few pushes of some buttons, and they’ve crafted a perfectly timed, perfectly looped guitar riff; seconds later, that one simple loop has turned into another, and then suddenly it has become loops upon loops, a sonic casserole of rhythmic layers and, lo and behold, an entire song. Add some quirky melodies over that, some computer-like drum beats, some wacked out, modified singing, and you have the Battles sound, robot music created by four real guys on the spot. It’s electronic, no doubt, but it is real. It is human.

So what, specifically, would I say qualifies them for the honor of GBOTP?

  • No one else could recreate their music. Even with all the same amount of practice, the same exact gear, and an obsessive knowledge of their songs, it would be really, really freaking impossible to make it sound exactly like a true Battles recording and/or show. I have a pretty decent comprehension of music, technology, pedals, etc., and I gotta say, I can only explain to you what it is that Battles does… maybe, MAYBE 60 percent of the time. That is true individuality. Not just anyone can create that.
  • They DO IT LIVE!!! (to use the Bill O’Reilly terminology), and they pull it off. It would be too easy for Battles to drown in a diluted sea of “laptop DJs” that use software and a few mouse clicks to pull up stored sound at the same tempos and create “live” songs from saved samples. Battles is the greatest BAND on the planet because, in spite of the fact that their songs often come off sounding like some kind of processed, heavily produced, 64-track MIDI recording, they create it all live on the spot, as individuals, with strings, keys, skins, and one really tall crash cymbal (no really, look up some pictures). No pre-saved samples. Each member has specific parts, and he just nails them all. And it’s all created right then and there.
  • What they play is borderline impossible to accomplish. This is kind of a mix of those first two points. I’ve tried basic looping on a small scale. It’s tough to keep it going for more than 8 measures before it sounds like a garbled mess of 6-year-olds at their first music lesson. Battles can make it sound perfect and deliberate for entire songs. Hell, entire SHOWS. You need to have absolutely pristine and precise tempo control to lock together like they do. That’s tough for one person. Very difficult for two people. Near impossible for three. Four? Well, Battles can, can you? No.
  • It’s the future, now. It has to be. In the same way that Radiohead recently invented a whole new genre of music that can really only be described as “sounds like Radiohead,” so might it go with Battles over the next few years . Because anyone who goes and sees them will eagerly want to return home, plug in a Gibson Echoplex loop pedal, and create the next year’s greatest album. It’s fun, it’s impressive, and it sounds great.

Look, there’s lots of good stuff out there. Plenty of awesome rock groups are drawing thousands of fans every night, making great music in cities across the globe. But Battles are doing something so totally different, so totally advanced, and so totally untouchable, it would be tough to argue that any other band on the scene is as tightly “banded” together as they are. See comments above about Battles being the future of music, and consider how good of an idea it would be to see them now, before they blow up and the only venue you can see them in is a multi-thousand capacity outdoor lunatheater on the Moon (where they will still be the greatest band on the planet).

– Paul


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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Alright Paul. I bought Mirrored, listened to it one and a half times in my moving music pod (car), and I, much to my dismay, didn’t love it. It was interesting, new, and technically impressive, but didn’t tickle me in a way that if Elly tickled me in that way I’d say “Ooo… that’s nice.” I’ll see if it grows on me, but as far as strict enjoyment when listening, I think I’d give The MJ Project CD higher marks.

  2. You are 100% correct they are awesome

  3. Keep up the good work.

  4. They have a laptop on stage so they could be using Ableton Live. This program helps you do live looping and time syncs all loops automatically on the fly. It also does pitch shifting on the fly, so could be the thing causing the voice effect on atlas. They might be using something else, but the technology is out there for others to use. I love what they are doing, and I could likely never do what they do, i’m just passing on what I know.

  5. Thanks for that comment, and those are definitely good observations! Ableton is great software.. I’d definitely recommend it, although admittedly I’d like to learn more about it myself.

    I didn’t want to get too into this in my post because I’m not 100% positive, but I have some theories of my own about Battles’ equipment and looping procedures. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the laptops are for (I think there are actually two onstage) but I would guess they use them connected to their piano keyboards to call up stored sound patches and things of that nature; I don’t believe they actually manipulate much of their live sound via laptop. In fact I’ve hardly seen them turn to the screen during live shows. I’m pretty sure the vocals in “Atlas” are manipulated with a microphone being run through several effects… I couldn’t name them all but I do know that the primary thing is the Digitech Whammy pedal, which is a crazy pitch-shifting effect often used by guitarists. You can see singer Tyondai Braxton moving the pitch controller pedal with his foot up and down in the music video and other live footage. Pretty awesome sound!

    I know, both from observing their mannerisms live and in videos AND from reading an interview with David Konopka, that their main tool for looping is a kickass piece of technology called the Gibson Echoplex Digital Plus Pro with foot controllers. They have at least three of them onstage — one for each guitarist/keyboardist (Ian Williams and Braxton) and one for Konopka (bass/guitar). The details of how this thing works are either fascinating to you or totally boring and pointless.. so I’ll leave it up to the readers to look it up themselves if they want 🙂 The thing that fascinates me is, it doesn’t look like the three units are connected to each other. This means these guys are creating their own loops independent of the other two and hoping they somehow had the timing right and synched it all up… and most of the time it works. And I say “most” of the time because it’s definitely not always… But to be honest, sometimes when they are just slightly off, it’s even more fascinating because it really hits it home that these guys are only human, after all.

    Stay tuned for another music post from me really soon, I promise!! Thanks again for all of your comments. Keep it REAL!

  6. Thanks for the follow up post! I did some research and found the gibson product page for the unit you listed: Pro Audio/Echoplex/
    It has the same or better loop synchronizing capabilities when compared to Ableton software.
    All connected units on the same midi chain have the option to have clips set to a predetrmined BPM or sync with each other, or both. I’m sure there is a lot more to it, looks like a really strong tool. Battles seems to have learned to drive it better than anyone else i’ve heard, that is for sure.

  7. Ableton has a few things that it can’t do as well as the Echoplex but it also has MANY looping features that no other looping device, hardware OR software, can’t touch…like looping to click in 17/8 in one tempo and switching to 13/8 in another..impossible on anything else.

    Battles are a cool band. I saw one of their first shows and it was pretty interesting. Years later, they changed “their” sound and approach (their presentation more like) and they are still a cool band with with a lot of new elements I could really do without. The last time I saw them, it seemed like they were more interested in dancing around and putting on a show than playing well. The drummer is without a doubt the strongest element in the band and he doesn’t loop a damn thing. Also, their single ‘Atlas” sounds great on the recording (since everything is probably just overdubbed and cut and pasted in Pro Tools) but is really weak live since it’s looped to a click; a real disappointment.

    Jon Brion seems to me to be the person who uses the Gibson Echoplex the best since he actually uses it as opposed to letting play him.

    Battles is still pretty cool though.

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  9. I have to agree with the fact that they are insanely origional and extremely talented. I was turned on to them by a random dude i met at a local show a while back, and at first i thought, lots of sampling and just some crazy off the wall melodies, and it was just really hard to listen to. But then i got the cd mirrored and started checking out some of their live stuff online and was completely blown away, i didn’t realize at first that they did all the stuff they do “live” it seriously took me a month of listening to’em here and there before i became a real fan.

  10. i agree with everything you said. battles is amazing, they have given us another completely different take on what music should sound like, hell was music is at all, and for that i am extremely appreciative. i will say, i have played battles for all of my audiophile friends and very few enjoyed it, so maybe not for everyone, but they are for me. i love battles

  11. Battles are good no doubt, but comparing them to Queens of the Stone Age is laughable…

    QOTSA is the greatest musical on the planet, true story.

  12. I absolutely agree that they are the greatest *band* on the planet, in the sense that nobody in the band is replaceable, and how they are absolutely synchronized like no other. Usually, a band would still work if you swap out the bassist or add a guitarist, and usually it will not sound the same only if you swap out the vocals, but here, you cannot swap anybody out – they are all connected.

    While they were setting during tonight’s show in NYC, I noticed a very strange thing: Tyondai hands a 1/4″ cable over to Ian to connect something between his gear and Ian’s.

    But why??

    My best guess is that either of them is using the cable to control some pedals that silence/put effects on the other person, to make the sound appear synchronized since it is actually one person controlling the ‘battle’, during songs like Atlas or Tonto where Ian and Tyondai would exchange melodies across the stage – like a battle of notes. Perhaps that’s why they call themselves Battles.

    One thing interesting about the use of Echoplex is that they don’t actually need to use it. A bassist could have actually just play the rhythm – if he is skilful enough. However, the layering and looping using the Echoplex makes the sound *logical*, thus way more interesting to watch than a bassist dumbly plays the same loop over and over and over and over again (which is what most bands do, sometimes I do wonder why).

    I watched them a couple times and was always fascinated by Dave starting a song by playing the bass and Echoplex – it is really like Mathematics: like a equation, these melodies, plus these melodies offset, equals this melody. Then he just casually sprinkle a note here or there during the course of the loop, or turning the knobs to makes it faster or pitch higher, etc. Very clever.

    Thanks for the article, by the way. It explains why I loved Battles very well. Very well put.

  13. I think that they use Logic’s Mainstage for software live. I went to their show and peeked and they had an empty grey window (to hide the software jajajaj) but it’s the same empty grey window that is used in mainstage’s empty project. If anyone else has any insight on the matter, i’d love to know.

  14. When I first bought Mirrored, I wasn’t overly impressed. When I saw them at Lollapalooza, I was floored… so much so that I’m online looking for information regarding their gear 18 months after I saw them.

  15. Hey,

    Found this while looking for information about the gear Battle use. Curiosity mixed with the desire to do my own stuff but not necessarily knowing the right people to do it with. Technology, the best band mate you can find!

    They are a great band but I do have quite a few criticisms. I’ve seen them three times and each gig was exactly the same as the last. Granted, they did these gigs over the space of 2 1/2 years on the foot of one album (which was the set plus one other cool track that’s not on Mirrored or the EP) so they probably didn’t have time to write new stuff but by the third gig I wasn’t that impressed. They have a LOT of equipment and I really don’t think that the music is all produced live, there has to be sampling which they manipulate live because it comes out sounding exactly the same as the album. I have a good memory for this kind of thing and remember these guys aren’t just another rock band so you come away with shit loads to remember from a gig. I can see that they do play instruments and they’re all fairly busy but it’s busy twiddling knobs and not playing the instruments. Personally I think it’s a bit of a cop out when someone plays one line on an instrument and loops it. I doubt they could play a riff as perfectly for the duration of the song and this doesn’t add up to an amazing musician. It’s more amazing to have the ability and control to play without looping. I know classical musicians don’t play the same melodies over and over but when you watch them even for a minute (especially on the double basses) play something quick and repetitive you have to say it’s incredible control and like watching a finely tuned athlete.
    I really don’t like the singing thing, I think it’s really weak and they could do without it. Maybe it’s personal but I think it’s off putting and sometimes is more in focus than the really nice stuff going on behind it.
    I think anyone with a lot of time and some of this equipment could definitely produce some pretty whacky sounds after a while. I don’t have much of this gear but left with a few effects pedals for a while I can certainly make some interesting sounds. That’s not blowing my trumpet, the nature of the effects and how they’re programmed allows this. Anyone could do it! I think they are unique as a band and unlike another 4 piece rock band they couldn’t very easily replace one of their members because they are very proficient in what they use and it’s not the kind of gear that many would be experts on. Not to mention the unique approach to songwriting and style.
    Sorry for rambling but finally, they are not the best band on the planet. They have one album and one ep. If they can develop and explore new avenues while still making amazing music that is true to what they are and record really new and diverse albums (and not just Mirrored part 2) then I would agree that they are up there at the top.

    Don’t mean to be a kill joy, just my two cents!

  16. …the Echoplexes ARE chained togother, via “Brother Sync” (MIDI).

  17. Hey everyone, sorry it’s been so long, but I’m psyched that people are still commenting and keeping it relevant! For everyone who has weighed in on whether or not they personally enjoy Battles, I appreciate your opinions! Even moreso, I appreciate the fact that you took some time to explain WHY you feel that way. “Greatest band on the planet” is a massive, weighty claim, I am well aware; and of course I know it’s also a totally subjective claim. If it were so easy to declare and define the greatest anything in the world, well, we wouldn’t need blogs explaining why 🙂

    One question, mstr tea: I believe you, but I’m wondering how you know that, and if you can provide any more details about the setup?

  18. hey, is this only place online with any sort attempt to list the gear that Battles use live?

    the other question I have is, is there a more simple version of the Echoplex? a hardware device that can sync up to a midi tempo but that isn’t as advanced, and is less expensive?

    thanks a lot!

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