No band ever remains the same forever, but with Battles, evolution has come at strange, slow-paced clip. The band’s first album, 2007’s Mirrored, was a twisty, massive blend of clean-cut rock and industrial slaughter. More than any album at the time, it created a space where mutated electronics made sense next to classically recognizable instruments, and its chipper vocals made Avey Tare fans feel like they had found new saviors with better names. Then four years passed, and 2011’s Gloss Drop had Battles dipping pop music into an aluminum shell of noise rock (a bold but risky experiment that involved a resurrection of ‘80s new wave icon Gary Numan). Battles have always been a rock band at heart, but on La Di Da Di (out today on Warp), they have stopped making future rock and started imagining music without a future or a past.
La Di Da Di exists in a perpetual fight against context. Whereas Mirrored was a response to the rhythmic complexity of math rock, and Gloss Drop tried to subvert the shiniest elements of big pop, La Di Da Di isn’t really borrowing from or expanding on anything happening in music right now. It starts and ends in a dimension separate from the timeline on which it emerged. This isolation might be the only way Battles could make La Di Da Di work as a single stand-alone entity, but it also prevents this album from having any real potential impact on music as a whole. It’s almost impossible to change something you’re ignoring.
The album feels like a conversation in a secret language
When Battles emerged in 2007, rock was mostly defined by a rapidly changing garage scene. The Strokes had just released First Impressions of Earth, a synth-flecked disaster that was both limp and bloated; Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? seemed to point to a future where kink and electronics had more pop appeal than straightforward guitars-and-drums. But Battles approached electronically augmented rock from the inside out, utilizing looping and software in a way that shifted the idea of what rock could be, while upending the straight-laced style of techno and house music at the time. Ian Williams (guitar / keyboard), Dave Konopka (guitar / bass), and John Stanier (drums), plus former member Tyondai Braxton, wielded their instruments like claws undetachable from their computers. It was frequently hard to tell what instrument you were hearing, but it didn’t matter — the band had created their own template, free from expectations.
But a lot has changed in the four years since Battles last dropped an album, and in the interim, artists like Disclosure and Skrillex have subsumed laptop electronics into dance pop, Aphex Twin finally came back, and Mirrored doesn’t sound so unusual anymore. A landscape this crowded would be hard for Battles to reshape again. So with La Di Da Di, Battles threw out the landscape entirely and constructed their work devoid of any setting at all.
At nearly seven minutes long, the album’s first track, "The Yabba," feels like the opening credits to a 22nd century Repo Man: synths like muscle relaxants stumble into Stanier’s bionic snare, cymbals crash into distorted guitar notes, and elliptical beats loop through each other. For the next 40 minutes, the album obsessively dissolves any solid ground it creates; as soon as one moment starts to expand, it deflates to make room for another. You can hear this rapid pattern of creation and destruction in "FF Bada," which churns along like the pulse of a flustered ambulance driver; or in "Tyne Wear," a sonic imagining of Philip Glass as The Terminator; or in "Summer Simmer," a soundtrack to the final boss battle in a video game where chiptune must die.
On past albums, Battles were always thrusting forward, propelling their sound toward some future destination. But La Di Da Di isn’t positioned toward the future, it’s positioned inward, focused on creating dozens of singular moments that fold in on themselves. ("Flora > Fauna," the album’s shortest song, begins with a squawking, paranoid synth, layers in percussion, and ends up back at the start). And, for the most part, this system works. A self-contained ecosystem is difficult to sustain in an environment where samples and guest verses constantly remind you of other songs and other sounds, but Battles (like Aphex Twin before them) have reached a point where the outside world might just be a distraction.
One would think the absence of vocals would make the album more esoteric than Battles’ previous outings, but the LP’s detached nature actually makes it feel much more direct. Here, Battles’ nervous math rock stagger and squirrelly vocals have been replaced by a shiny robotic confidence, and by stripping away any residue of human physicality, Battles have created a new species of anthropomorphic electronic music. La Di Da Di has no anchor — no vocals, no classic rock riffs, no predetermined idea of what it should sound like — and so there’s no grounds for listeners to question what it is.
Battles obsessively dissolve any solid ground they create
The repetitive functions behind La Di Da Di — the incessant looping, the manic percussive stutters — make the album feel like a conversation in a secret language. When everything descends into madness (and it frequently does) there’s a call-and-answer between the instruments that feels sentient. The squeaky-shoe beats of "Megatouch" chatter with percussion that always seems to end with a question mark. Battles are tinkerers, loosening and tightening their mechanics minute by minute, using a haphazard system of trial and error to see if they can get their inventions to walk in a circle. Locked in that intensive process, it’s easy to forget anything else exists, which is perfect if your album is meant to be an implosive, unbound thing. Outside forces — whether in the form of guest vocalists or producers — could have destroyed the cohesion of La Di Da Di, but they might have also strengthened its impact.
On La Di Da Di, Battles position themselves as omniscient creators powerful enough to make the world as we know it shrink in favor of theirs, if only for an hour. But that tension is what makes it work: it exists independently of our musical ecosystem, while simultaneously trying to remain worthy of it.