Descriptors like ‘crossover’ or ‘fusion’ get thrown around like cheap Halloween candy, especially when a band draws influence from both guitar music and electronica. More often than not, the seam left by knitting these disparate genres together is uncomfortably obvious. Since their inception in the early noughties, locating the join in the Battles sound has always been a more considerable challenge. On one hand, there was (at least to begin with) a full complement of musicians holding ‘real’ instruments – but on the other, they have released their four albums (or five if you count an anthology of EPs) via progressive EDM overlords Warp Records. Curious.
Throughout their career, Battles have ventured deep into a realm of experimentation that relies on building layer upon layer of hypnotic loops, themselves constructed through the expert manipulation of a frankly dizzying array of effects boxes, synths and other assorted gizmos, using their guitars more as triggers than to actually play a recognisable riff. Curiouser.
Even the evolution of the personnel who constitute Battles has chartered its own unique path. When the band first entered the studio to record those early EPs, they were a quartet. Following the departure of Tyondai Braxton, they continued on as a trio to record what now constitutes the bulk of their back catalogue. However, at some point after the end of the touring cycle in support of their last album, 2015’s La Di Da Di, guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka also quietly left the group. Rather than seek a replacement for him, Battles have now slimmed down again to become a duo, with John Stanier handling the drums and Ian Williams in charge of everything else. Curiouserer? Curiousest?
That Battles have chosen to adapt to their new configuration rather than attempt to recruit new members speaks both to the unique qualities of their sound – which clearly relies upon the strong personal connections of its creators – and the considerable developments in the technology that they employ to create it since their inception. It’s entirely plausible that Battles could not have operated in the ways they do now at the beginning, simply because the gizmos didn’t exist to facilitate them. Over the course of their time as a trio, Dave focssed on creating his parts using a more analogue, pedal-based set-up, and Ian a more digital approach (Watch the excellent documentary ‘The Art of Repetition’ on YouTube for more on this). It’s probably fair to assume that had Ian decided to leave rather than Dave, the project may well have been forced to end.
Fortunately for all concerned, that was not the case and the cryptically titled Juice B Crypts showcases a slimline Battles 3.0 in rude health, with a distinctly playful mood evident throughout their most immediately accessible collection of songs to date. Battles have always inhabited the experimental borderlands around the division between being cool and interesting on one hand, and being maddeningly awkward and flat-out annoying on the other. Juice B Crypts spends rather more time in the former category than the latter. Fans would certainly have been forgiven for worrying about the consequences of losing an entire musician from the equation, but the net result has been that any individual loop or motif that is introduced to the mix is given a little bit more room to breathe.
It is also plausible that removing a whole brain from the composition process has made it a more straightforward, enjoyable affair for the remaining minds, which is also evident in the tracks themselves. Nowhere is it more apparent than lead single “Titanium 2 Step”, a particularly jaunty, upbeat stomper that could become every bit as cherished by the fanbase as a demented anthem as “Atlas” from Mirrored. The track also features one of a host of guest spots by various luminaries from the eclectic New York scene who add extra spice and texture to the album, also helping to prevent Juice B Crypts from becoming some kind of bleepy endurance test.
Elsewhere, “A Loop So Nice” and “…They Played It Twice” really are two dramatically different variations on the same theme. Album opener “Ambulance” begins with seemingly random notes, like Ian has just plugged in his gear and is checking it’s all working, that gradually coalesce into a particularly infectious groove. “Fort Greene Park” features a riff that leans heavily on the portamento wheel, and “IZM” is a glorious and languid hip-hop track. At just 40 minutes in length, Juice B Crypts is every bit as sleek and devoid of excess fat as the line-up.
Of course, whilst it’s easy to focus on how Ian is now having to do a job on his own he previously shared with Dave, we also shouldn’t forget just how vital to the success of the project John Stanier’s beats are. Tight, snappy and tastefully simple, they effortlessly serve the songs, providing an absolutely rock solid foundation which to build. The beats on offer here are an absolute masterclass in how less can deliver so much more. Literally every single strike of his sticks counts.
The decision to continue with Battles after Dave’s departure was certainly a gamble, but Juice B Crypts proves that the bet has paid off handsomely. Battles have never been fond of standing still, but this album is still several large strides forwards. People who listened to Battles in the past and found it all just a bit much may find Juice B Crypts significantly more palatable, but no less bonkers. It has created a new paradigm for the band, and it’ll be fascinating to see where they take it next.
Juice B Crypts is available now via Warp Records.