The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


La Di Da Di Daniel Ross , September 16th, 2015 07:55

If you'd asked Battles the answer to the question, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" back in 2007, they would've answered "That chicken's a dog! Look it! He smells terrible!" Back then they were a four-piece, counting experimental composer Tyondai Braxton among their number, alongside a duo of instrumental wizards and the meat conglomeration of drummer John Stanier, with his crash cymbal forever extended three feet higher than the norm. Their debut LP, Mirrored, was perfect on its own terms, setting and fulfilling its own symmetrical, theory-based targets.

You're right: that, in itself, doesn't sound hugely thrilling. What separated Battles from anyone else suffering with the term math - or post-rock was simple – humour. In their initial line-up, they were able to convey tremendous humour instrumentally, something that is all-too-often overlooked by anyone foolhardy enough to strap a guitar on and call it forward-thinking. The wonky rhythms on 'Rainbow', the plinky motifs on 'Tonto', the relentless bounce of the drums in 'Atlas': all of these sounds are funny.

Braxton left the band amicably to pursue compositions that, ironically, are nowhere near as funny as anything on Mirrored, while Battles battled on as a three-piece. The magical humour ghosted through their second record, 2011's Gloss Drop, thanks to batshit music videos and well-chosen guest vocalists like Matias Aguayo and a screeching Gary Numan. In case you're wondering if it's completely necessary to trawl through this preamble and truncated biography, then be assured that it is. Knowing the role of humour in the band's catalogue is the key to understanding this, their third record. La Di Da Di is their coldest, most humourless release so far, but at no point does it make you want to shout "Tell us a joke we know, lads." They've successfully transferred across into serious territory. They're Jim Carrey in Man On The Moon. They're Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.

La Di Da Di sees Battles evolve into a beast wracked and contorted with instrumental sinew, straining at the confines they've given themselves. Riffs are surgically, forensically, genetically honed into their most efficient possible incarnation. Stanier's calling cards remain, the clutched hi-hat smash and the ominous tinkle of sleigh bells, but here they're funneled into the sound as constituent parts of an animalistic whole. 'Megatouch' is the funniest song on the whole record, a brattish, playground-suitable series of nyaah-nyaah motifs that foreground Ian Williams and Dave Konopka's intensely inventive interplay. Conversely and dominantly, epic workouts like opener 'The Yabba' and 'Summer Simmer' see them commit even further to a satisfyingly clinical series of musical motifs. Any wayward traipses into humorous territory are shrouded by this newfound dedication to the riff, a delightful new character to the band that is hugely rewarding if you're prepared to swot up for it.

At a recent and relatively low-key show at the Dome in Tufnell Park, Battles displayed this newly developed instrumental leanness to a charmed crowd. The theatricality of Stanier's high cymbal was a lovely vestige of their previous work, but its relative paucity of use was the most intriguing thing about the whole show. Shedding a whole band member was just the beginning of what now seems to be a process of economising a decadent sound – Battles' efficiency is becoming their most formidable trait. Their sound now possesses a withering, caustic wit instead of a joyous, ostentatious cackle, and the suspicion is that it's only the start of an enticing middle chapter. We'll see better still from them as they develop.

Ask them about the chicken now. "Don't talk to us about the chicken," they'd say. "We bit that chicken's head off."