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Review: Battles Lock Into Holding Patterns on ‘La Di Da Di,’ But Oh What Patterns

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 17, 2015
Label: Warp

Who was the last guitar hero or star drummer? It feels like so long since a band been identified by a chief instrumentalist that you could count our current Les Claypools and Jack Whites on your hand: combustible Cloud Nothings drummer Jason Gerycz, reformed two-hand tapper Marnie Stern, mysteriously discreet shredder Annie Clark (d/b/a St. Vincent). Ensemble playing has mutated from a Northern indie curio (Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire) into de rigueur caverns of blown-out production for everything across the pop spectrum: the Lumineers, fun., the Weeknd.

In 2015, the parts are neatly tucked behind billowing curtains of recorded layers, countless personnel and anonymous studio elements, all stacked into a mountain of aural mass that obfuscates its individuals. The musicians have become part of the stage crew in a much grander production. So the three nerds in Battles are extolled as astounding indie-rock players at a time when the individual virtuoso is well, missing.

At the ages of 47, 45, and bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka no spring chicken at 38, these guys are only playing whatever they want to, regardless of how it fits into the larger scheme of things. Not returning Helmet’s reunion calls? No problem for polyrhythmic kit mastermind John Stanier, for whom grunge-metal was like concrete boots. Losing vocalist/voice manipulator Tyondai Braxton of 2007’s critically adored Mirrored and its flagship chipmunks anthem “Atlas?” Then they’ll go all-instrumental. La-di-da-di.

It was the move; math-rock or not (and with time signatures well within rock’s 4/4 norms this time around), Stanier, Konopka and de facto conductor, keyboardist/guitarist Ian Williams know folks just want to hear them play. Battles’ third album is all playing, for both better and worse. It’s their most consistent album and their least distinguished, the one with no singles (bye Matias Aguayo and the euphoric “Ice Cream”) but no attitude about it. Play, play, play.

Which alone nets highlights aplenty: the Mozart-via-Rage Against the Machine stabs of cello-or-treated-guitar of “Non-Violence,” the low-burbling staccato and secret harmonized leads of “Cacio e Pepe” sounding for all the world like Another Green World’s “Golden Hours” on the Eno landmark’s 40th anniversary.

But unlike Mirrored or 2011’s underrated Gloss Drop, La Di Da Di is where Battles demonstrate their competence rather than their virtuosity; there’s never that moment of dominos falling to their death or the mutated instruments and real-time looping opening portals to parallel dimensions. Toward the end things grow outright irritating: Stanier’s disco moves in “Dot Com” are disappointed by the arena-Teletubbies guitar even before it takes on the glow of a vaguely Arabic scale. The B-movie organ and creeping ska bass line of “Megatouch” give way to what sounds like MIDI arrangements of squeaking file cabinets. If a vocalist wouldn’t have made them good tunes, they would’ve at least helped distract.

And “Summer Simmer” exemplifies the limits of this record altogether. Another 2015 album, Tal National’s Zoy Zoy, is among the year’s best in any genre. Purportedly Niger’s most popular band, they’re a nine-piece ensemble whose individual parts manage to stick out with breathing room to spare, all virtuosic, liquid guitar runs and tensely coiled drum fills that give the illusion of exploding repeatedly over the course of eight tracks. Since Battles is a band of frequently palm-muted, intricate passages, they’re bound to share characteristics with Afropop on occasion, and the knotty, beautiful “Summer Simmer” could make you forget which record you’re playing. And it makes you long for the Nigerien ensemble’s juice and warmth in the moments when La Di Da Di feels overly studious. It’s a shame that this very good band has only encircled true excellence with the aid of vocalists and other seemingly trivial frills in the past; few math-rock progeny are this listenable for record length. But should Battles apply their classroom training to the world at large  and dare one ask for a complementary visionary if not a vocalist their Graceland or Modern Vampires of the City awaits.