Every now and then, one of the latest «cool» bands releases an album where it intentionally mixes the cool and the immediate with the artsy and the meandering, and a large chunk of the critics cries out something like «Prog-rock is back, but this is just about the only way we could ever like it!» and then the cool band fades away and the other cool band comes in and does the same thing in a different way and gets the exact same response. Had Jon (or Ian, for that matter) Anderson been born twenty years later and started off in some obscure indie rock band in Sheffield or Oklahoma City, they might have been luckier with their tattered critical legacies.
With Mirrored, Battles have entered trickier territory than their much more minimalistic EPs could ever suggest; the critics paused, wavered, then, for the most part, gave the green light, because, after all, those guys do not take themselves too seriously, and that's exactly what matters. How exactly they do take themselves is another matter. Nobody really knows. But everybody's intrigued. Could this, like, be the future of rock'n'roll... again?
The lead hit single, 'Atlas', is a little bit rock'n'roll, for certain. Its kid-martial rhythm paired with garbled chipmunk vocals is pure novelty, per se, but it is only an integral part of a far more challenging structure, with buildups, fadeouts, external riffs coming in and going away, and a jarring industrial loop to finish things off — definitely more ambitious than just a modern twist on 'The Chipmunk Song'. Besides, it is hardly typical of the entire album: its chipmunkish hook is one of the most obvious, as befits the lead single, but, overall, it is simpler than the rest, and the happiness quotient is way too high. Mirrored isn't exactly a depressing or aggressive experience, but neither is it an ode to joy.
A few tracks almost sound like a more collected, rhythmic (and cleaner-recorded) Animal Collective: trippy textures from outer space to blow the minds of inferior life forms, only set to rhythms that the life forms can really dance to (most are tricky in terms of signature, yet manageable nevertheless), like 'Ddiamondd', for instance, or the shamanistic vocal part of 'Rainbow'. But since the bulk of the band, after all, consists of real guitarists playing real guitars, we all know these similarities may not last too long. Sooner or later, the band enters real-music-playing mode, and then they become the modern day's Gentle Giant.
What they do not really share is prog-rock's love for dissonance and atonality, nor do they support the ideology of «stop, shift to a different rhythm, melody, and tempo, play for ten seconds, stop, repeat, do while .T.». Entire seven/eight-minute pieces like 'Tonto' can stay glued to the same rhythm throughout, as if they were some inoffensive, unnoticeable chillout offering, but behind that rhythm, different melodies actually shift on a continual basis; the peak of this madness arrives near the end of the album with 'Tij', a sweaty, funky composition, like a fast-going King Crimson number from the early Eighties sped up at twice the norm.
In addition to still not caring about «song-ifying» any of their music, Battles may have another Achilles' heel: it is exactly their lighter elements — the chipmunk vocals, the carefree whistling on 'Race In' and suchlike — that may prevent many people from taking them seriously rather than dismissing them as the ten millionth novelty act to come our way, much like John Zorn's Naked City could have a hard time gaining recognition with «true» jazz fans for being influenced by the likes of Napalm Death.
And I, too, do not think that every idea they come up with on Mirrored is perfect, if only because there is so much. Nor do I claim to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Nor do I make a solemn promise that I will want to relisten to this at least once a year, nor would I bet ten dollars on the album becoming a timeless classic for the ages. But I do admit that this kind of sound — this kind of idea, to take a bunch of real instruments, make them sound like Electronica, and then streamline the whole thing into the direction of complex artsiness — is a solid, and potentially quite captivating, creative achievement of the human spirit. Will it lead us on to Mars and Jupiter? I am not sure. Probably not. But it does justify the band haughtily assuming its given name, and for that particular blistering moment in 2007, that was fairly well enough. Thumbs up — were the brain disallowed to offer that judgement, what other album, strictly brain-wise, would be more deserving of it?