La Di Da Di
Virtuosic trio finally embrace the "no singing allowed" mantra
by Jericho Cerrona
When a band announces themselves as forcefully as Battles did with their wildly inventive, game-changing 2007 LP Mirrored, it's difficult to assess subsequent works as anything less than disappointing. 2011 followup Gloss Drop was itself something of a sonic wow; moving away from the excessively instrumental prog-rock of Mirrored into a collaborative frenzy; with the likes of synth-pop visionary Gary Numan, Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, Argentinean DJ Matias Aguayo, and Yamantaka Eye of Japanese noisemakers Boredoms joining the fray. Multi-instrumentalist/singer Tyondai Braxton, who some would claim was the heart and soul of the band, would depart before the album's release, meaning future endeavors would remain shrouded in uncertainty. Though Braxton's sped-up effects pedals and chipmunk vocals were gone, there was nonetheless a fusion of funk, electro, and math-rock with more accessible song structures (complete with varying vocal styles) on Gloss Drop, proving the band still had plenty of virtuosic music left in the can.
With La Di Da Di, Battles have decided to ditch vocals altogether and lean on their ability to create syncopated grooves and propulsive melodies. While this seems like a natural progression in a way, seeing as the now three-piece (multi-instrumentalists David Konopka, Ian Williams, and drummer John Stanier) mostly used vocals as yet another tool in their arsenal of layered instrumentation to begin with, the lack of a connective tissue within the tracks means a sense of sameness begins to pervade. This is not to say that Battles have gotten lazy; there's still plenty of complicated tempo changes and warped guitar tones on display, but without an overriding conceptual framework, much of the undoubtably deft musicianship lacks a lingering quality. Opener "The Yabba" is a perfect encapsulation of the Battles M.O.; a repetitive groove, staccato synths, crashing cymbals, and a slowly building sense of forward momentum. Eventually, the song blows out into a full-on frenzy, with drummer Stanier becoming the maestro of controlled chaos. Indeed, much of the praise for Battles sans Braxton will center around Stanier's near messianic rhythmic abilities, as the best moments here revolve around his incredible dexterity behind the kit. For instance, "Dot Net" is a straightforward blast of warbly keyboard noises (or is it guitars made to sound like synths?) and funky baselines, but Stanier's dynamic drumming keeps everything from flying off into sonic tangents.
This centering of Battles' sound; which is noteworthy for starting out as repetitive motifs before warping into ever-increasing levels of insane looping and overlapping madness, is at the heart of why Battles feel a bit streamlined here. Songs like "BFF Bada" and "Summer Simmer" have catchy grooves and a rhythmic drive, but they mostly stay fixed in one gear. Unlike the more adventurous, shape-shifting songwriting on Mirrored and Glass Drop, much of La Di Da Di feels focused inward, as if impervious to the listeners insatiable desire for maximalist euphoria. Of course, Battles have never been minimalists, even as songs like "Cacio e Pepe", with it's distorted guitars and languid keyboard washes, suggest a cooling period, but one is still left waiting for the band to go completely off the grid.
Such expectations may be unfair, and given Battles' career trajectory, it's tough to imagine where they could possibly take their sound that wasn't already explored on their mind-melting debut. Braxton's bizarre vocals, which were obscured by having guest spots on their sophomore effort, does feel like a loss here, however. One can imagine something like "Dot Com", which features off-kilter synths and a hard-rock groove, being accentuated by robotic, ear-piercing yelps. As it stands, the song is pleasant, if unmemorable, refusing to shift into a more interesting detour. Ultimately, there's a focused intensity to the music that's noteworthy, even as the unhinged messiness of Gloss Drop feels even more like a step forward in retrospect. Perhaps the most intriguing track here is the nearly 7-minute closer "Luu Le", which makes no concessions to accessibility or expectations whatsoever. Lurching forward with odd tempo changes, distorted sleigh bells, xylophones, and cerebral mood-based soundscapes, the song showcases Battles' desire to explore the outer reaches of their sound.
If only the rest of La Di Da Di had this same kind of ambitious, fuck-off attitude. Battles desperately needs this kind of middle finger abrasiveness to survive as a solely instrumental unit, and too much of their latest feels afraid to veer off course into the arena of head-scalping weirdness. Additionally, the band's loopy sense of humor which have categorized their past work feels largely absent here. It might be strange to think of instrumental music as being humorous, but there's certainly a quirky sensibility to Battles which seems to have been lopped off somewhat. Perhaps this has something to do with a lack of vocals, but overall, the music feels even more robotic and impersonal on album number three. Ultimately, this is the work of supremely talented artists realizing the limits of a certain type of jam-band aesthetic; with the loss of Braxton, who leaned toward the left side of pop, being keenly felt throughout.