By Chris Razor
Nothing says “My ears aren’t connected to my brain” more emphatically than a complaint that there’s no decent rock around these days. But, but … rock is the music that never stands still. While most genres flare briefly before collapsing into clinker, rock is less supernova, more cannibal galaxy: swallowing up other musics and transforming them into new and oddly-shaped parts of itself. What the idiot really means is that they haven’t enjoyed a U2 album in a couple of decades, and none of Robert Plant’s recent work sounds like Led Zeppelin.
OK, in past decades it did seem as if rock needed to have a message to justify its existence. Born in social upheaval, it was assumed thereafter that in order to make your putative revolution fly you needed rock songs onside, with – of course – relevant lyrics. Thus was punk (still-) born. Sod interesting rhythms, curious sounds or wandering chord progressions. There was no time then for sounds to be their Cageian selves, they had to be a polemical vehicle. This was class war. Man.
Luckily fewer believe this bollocks in 2011, and so rock – freed from ‘meaning’ – is at last allowed to be its own grinning, eclectic, wayward self.
Just look at the career of Battles founder member Ian Williams. When he joined Pittsburgh outfit Don Caballero in the mid-90s, his arrival coincided with the formerly Slint-influenced (Slintfluenced?) band making explicit the connection-that-dared-not-be-uttered between math rock and 70s prog, revelling humorously in extended drum solos and neck-wrenching time changes, and making, in Don Caballero 2, one of the freshest and most enjoyable, not to mention original, rock albums of that decade. Soon Williams was pulling stoner rock into its constituent parts with his ‘free rock’ side project Storm & Stress.
Although it’s true – as Julian Cope perceptively pointed out - that metal has become a central part of the avant-rock landscape, interestingly Don Cab only fully embraced foursquare rhythms and metal riffage after Williams’ departure. The last album they made with him on board, 2000′s American Don, is pretty far from all previous archetypes, sounding – with its chiming, mesmeric riffs of self-sampled guitars – like proto-Battles. Yeah, the atomised celestial matter from which modern rock is accreted now includes the dust of dubstep and Congotronics‘ collapsed remnant, as well as the rubble of rock’s pasts.
Of course rock can be degenerate, just as chips can come out soggy if you leave them too long in the pan: it only succeeds as music, rather than a mere carrier of lyrics, when we are gripped and swept away by its syncopations, its polyrhythms, its internal instrumental dialogue – what critic Joe Carducci calls “ … chasing down a beat”.
I’ve subjected myself to a lot of ‘experimental’ music over the years, but seeing Battles live was a revelation. The crowd was raving in 9/8. Hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute! Who said you could make new noises and have fun? Avant-rock today is a real, exciting collision – like the accidental discovery of what happens when you drop phosphorous in the bath – not the petri-dish prodding drudgery of jobbing whitecoats.
That said, Gloss Drop, their recent album, was something of a disappointment. For one thing Battles are clearly still acclimatising to the departure of vocalist and keyboardist Tyondai Braxton, which – with one fewer instrumental and actual voice – has de-complexified their sound in each moment. But in addition there’s a linear flattening, the previously scattershot rhythm section only firing on four cylinders rather than the customary five or seven.
There is a fine line between delicately intricate and just twee, and in many parts Battles cross it seemingly just for shits and giggles. I can see what draws them towards the cutesy, but it seems in their rush to distance themselves from foot-on-monitor School Of Rock-ishness Battles are surrendering a lot of propulsive energy in favour of a cloying ersatz-lightheartedness. The overriding impression is not even retro-futuristic, more 50s Disney cartoon. I expect these tracks to grace many a zany advert, or amusing nature programme montage.
For an album that was made in times of lineup-turbulence it’s not really surprising that the most successful moments, like the bleep-fest of ‘Wall Street’ or ‘Futura”s scratchy arrhythmia, reprise their early successes. With it’s all-too-obviously grafted on guest vocals – the likes of Gary Numan and Eye – Gloss Drop gives the strong impression of not quite fulfilling the group’s vision. Williams has repeatedly proved himself capable of unexpected reinventiveness, so there’s probably a reason they’re thrown out all that bathwater, just that the baby is still somewhere out of sight.
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