Battles EP C/B EP

[Monitor/Dim Mak; 2004]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: instrumental rock, math rock, neo-indie-prog
Others: Don Caballero, Hella, The Mercury Program, Volta Do Mar

Battles is a new super-group of sorts spearheaded by former Don Caballero and Storm & Stress guitarist Ian Williams and featuring loop-based composer Tyondai Braxton, former Helmet/current Tomahawk sticksman John Stanier, and Dave Konopka of algebraic architects Lynxx. It seems that while Don Cab drummer Damon Che is busy trying to relive past glories with a reformed version of the instrumental math-rock colossus, Williams has moved on to greener pastures with his prolific new project, releasing not one, not two, but three EPs in the past year.

The Battles formula is pretty straightforward (and one both Williams and Braxton have more-or-less perfected in their previous work): simple, arrhythmic guitar figures supported by sparse, groove-tastic drumming slowly evolve into surprisingly dense compositions, often featuring staccato keyboard lines and layer upon layer of sometimes beautiful, sometimes chaotic harmonies. Sort of like an instrumental version of Discipline-era King Crimson on a heavy Public Enemy binge. It's not too much of a stretch from Don Cab's later work, but the crucial difference is Battles are a lot tighter, more focused; and Williams is calling the shots this time around.

"B+T," "Tras2," and "Hi/Lo" (on a side note -- put this track on the next time you're knocking boots, Ms. Amber B) from EP C float along on multiple, intersecting guitar and keyboard lines while a breezy undercurrent and Stanier's hard-hitting, inhumanly precise drumwork keep things from getting too abstruse. "UW" and "Ipt-2" are two rather contemplative, ambient tracks that I assume were placed to temper the onslaught a bit and work nicely in doing so (though "Ipt-2" doesn't hold a candle to the B EP version).

B EP's principal tracks, "SZ3," "Ipt2," and "Dance," all carry over the Battles signature from EP C, but that breezy undercurrent has all but been replaced with much more intricate instrumental passages and a triumphant, victorious fire that could only be compared to a Viking ship sailing towards Valhalla. I can only assume "Tras 3" and "Bttls" play the same role as "UW" and "Ipt-2" did on EP C, only "Bttls" sounds like a math-rock Sounds of the Rainforest and at 12 minutes, could have been shortened without compromising the flow of the entire piece.

Maybe it's the fact that the guys in Battles are a little older and wiser than many of their instrumental brethren or that the group's name is indeed Battles, but it's obvious to any discerning listener that these guys have an upper-hand on the competition. I suppose it would have to take some older cats to show all these faceless, delay-pedal-abusing, space-rocking young bucks how it's done. Moreover, on both of its EPs, Battles turn a silent (no pun intended) instrumental rock code of etiquette on its head: just because a band is vocal-less, doesn't mean that its songs don't have to be memorable or -- dare I say -- even catchy.

The only real complaints I have about either of the records are their outrageous retail prices ($9.95 for 5 songs?!) and the fact that they could have fit on a single full-length release. Aside from that, B EP and EP C showcase a refreshingly original sound that takes a little from each member's previous projects and puts it all into one big melting miasma of instrumental rock goodness. Truly, two of 2004's standout releases.

In some alternate universe, Battles songs are being played at strip clubs and John Stanier is the featured heartthrob in this month's Teen People.

1. B+T
2. UW
3. Hi/Lo
4. Ipt-2
5. Tras 2

1. SZ3
2. Tras 3
3. Ipt2
4. Bttls
5. Dance