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Album Of The Week

I Am A Strange Loop: On Battles' Juice B Crypts
Sean Kitching , October 17th, 2019 08:37

Distilled yet further, into a duo of Ian Williams and John Stanier, the new Battles’ record finds the band revitalised and redefined, finds Sean Kitching

Sometimes it takes a spanner in the works of our expectations to realise that we’ve been taking something for granted. Battles new album, Juice B Crypts, impacted upon my consciousness almost simultaneously with their ‘secret’ London show at the Shacklewell Arms in mid-August. I hardly had time to ponder the ramifications of the departure of bassist, Dave Konopka, before it dawned on me that this new dyad incarnation of the band might make the most sense so far, might even be its best yet.

Watching the new songs being constructed with immense candour before an eager audience in such a compact space, certainly reignited my own passion for Battles, and made me wonder why on earth I hadn’t missed them more in the interim. Four years between albums is par for the course in Battles’ discography. Likewise, their long-running relationship with Warp Records is entirely befitting of their status as two adept elder statesmen of experimental rock making electronic-sounding music, ostensibly with guitars and drums. Whether one takes this notion as straightforward description or an enthusiastic endorsement, is largely a matter of perspective.

Judging by the results of Juice B Crypts, this revitalisation of purpose feels very much like something radiating directly from the artists themselves. Hardly a complete renewal or about-face, but rather a refining of methodology and intent, a distillation of what made them so exciting to begin with.

Here the beats seem to fall in all the right places. There are bangers and moments of beautiful respite. The listener’s ideas of where the album might be going are acknowledged and playfully upended. The guest vocalists, drawn from a broad spectrum of genres are sagaciously deployed, each complimenting the tracks they appear on with apposite grace.

Opener ‘Ambulance’ begins by emitting playfully effervescing electronic tones, before settling into a tight, concentric drum pattern beneath a scintillating keyboard arpeggio. ‘A Loop So Nice’ subtly ascends skywards, Stanier’s beats coalescing around spiralling, chiming sounds. It seamlessly sets the scene for ‘They Played It Twice’. Xenia Rubinos’ ecstatic vocal hits a soulful plateau, before the beats erupt once more with renewed insistence. It’s the closest the album comes to directly evoking a club dancefloor, and as such feels like relatively new territory for the band.

Following that, the gorgeously hazy and pulsating ‘Sugar Foot’ seems cut from a different cloth entirely. An airy and ambient cloud of free floating loveliness, which shifts gear irresistibly around the halfway mark as Stanier’s drum patterns and layered guest vocal effects come to the fore. The track makes great use of Yes vocalist Jon Anderson’s unique alto-tenor as well as contributions from the intriguing Taipei-based experimental psychedelic band, Prairie WWWW. Coming so close on the heels of the album’s most overt dance-music moment, this feels like no accident, but rather a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the diversity of the band’s influences, and an indication of how confident they are in transforming and blending their source materials.

‘Fort Greene Park’ is Battles at their most direct, a lovely rising series of notes, almost jingle-like in their comparative simplicity, with a melodic hook that wastes no time in embedding itself in the listener’s memory. It wouldn’t be surprising if this tune, like ‘Atlas’ and ‘Ice Cream’ before it, found its way into other contexts, such as television adverts and computer games. If that sounds like reason enough to distrust its charms from the onset, then I still can’t quite bring myself to do so.

Sal Principato, from the classic New York based no wave dance-punk group, Liquid Liquid, brings his own distinctive whimper and howl to ‘Titanium 2 Step’. Shabazz Palaces guest on ‘Izm’, providing Stanier with the occasion to express some of his more hip hop oriented influences. Title track, ‘Juice B Crypts’, kicks off with a dense array of beats, bleeps and squelches, akin to the way the best Squarepusher tracks seemingly dissect linear time into pockets of quantum probability. Saving such offbeat intensity for as late on the album as this is an ingenious move and the uncertainty it introduces flows into the following track, ‘Last Supper On Shasta Pt. 1’ featuring guest vocals from Tune-Yards. Easily a stand-out, despite hot competition from many others on the album, the clarity and clear image provided by the vocal (“What’s that view like up in the sky / Is there a cloud stuck in your eye?”) is curiously at odds with the churning eddy of the music’s countercurrent. It’s almost as if the mechanics of a simpler pop tune have been infected with a vortex building computer virus, and the delirious way the sounds merge and blend together is oddly triumphant in a way that’s difficult to define.

The album’s closing piece, ‘Last Supper On Shasta Pt. 2’ returns to a dense style of cut-up that at one point seems to suggest Battles’ hit, ‘Atlas’, as well as its preceding part, before quietly turning into a simple section of keyboard improvisation that contains the seed of the album’s first track, ‘Ambulance’. It’s as though we’re being treated to a hand on the dial shifting rapidly through the myriad of influences the album contains, before being provided with a snapshot of the origins of the beginning of the album itself.

This kind of thing would be too clever for its own good perhaps, were the listener not made complicit in it and ‘invited in’. How very like Battles, a band who delight in showing their audience the creation of their complex tunes in a live environment, to give a glimpse into their process of creation of the studio originals also. In linking the last track to the first in such a manner, they also imply a kind of infinite loop, a perfectly fitting image for a band to whom closed and interlocking cycles are such an important part of both their working methodology and their melodic essence.