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