Math rock is dead. Such a statement may sound harsh, especially in reference to an underground genre that has barely found its footing, but it isn’t meant as an insult. After twenty years, the strongest descendants of Slint and Genesis have finally taken their spots in the indie and prog-rock canon. Pick up a copy of Don Caballero’s “For Respect” and try to catalogue its found-sound virtues: dissonant vocals, asymmetrical time signatures, and bursts of static and noise dovetail in a warmly familiar fashion. To say that math rock is dead is not to say that we can’t enjoy its teachings—rather, we acknowledge that something new has arrived, that deserves its own name and history.
“Mirrored,” the first LP by New York newcomers Battles, suggests such a label in its first twenty seconds: 22nd-century rock. Throughout the album, an unshakeable bedrock of blips, beeps, and tinny reverb paints a chilly and alien soundscape, the background white noise of a streamlined city of the future. From avant-garde mechanics and aural robotics, this band has built a prophecy, and listeners fond of Royksopp and Junior Boys would do themselves well to listen.
Cheeky opener “Race: In” announces its entrance with a hollow, repetitive drumbeat that perfectly forecasts the childish rhythms of later tracks, the first sign that this album traffics in schizophrenic mood changes and stop-start malfunctions. Singer and keyboardist Tyondai Braxton croons keenly in time with the drums—at his best he resembles a six-year-old child lost in a crowded mall. Album single “Atlas” rolls with a singular, voltaic energy, the rumblings of an electrical storm crackling through every bar. This energy likens “Mirrored” to its predecessors—formality and sterility cancel each other out in a hodgepodge of intricate architecture, all part of a complex equation whose total equals warmth. A modernist energy surges through this album; a city of glass and halogen leaves nothing in the dark.
Even the album’s slowest moments verge on epiphany. “Bad Trails” bounces between a ceiling of sprightly vocals and a floor of atmospheric fuzz, yet the overall mood of the song remains solidly low-key throughout its five minutes. “Tonto” builds slowly from a mournful first few measures to a heavily tritonic, accented freakout of laser-guitar trills and synthesized piano taps. This frenzy eventually fades into a lulling ballad of old-school MIDI and IDM, a retrospective touch that tinges the track with nostalgia. “Prismism” ambles through fifty-two seconds of airy and Bela Fleck-like jamming—the song as a whole acts as a musical picaresque that tempers the album’s tension. “Snare Hangar” celebrates the simplicity of pop with the irony and complexity of a maestro, surrounding a basic, two-part drumline with layers of undulant cries. Nowhere on this album does a track drag; at its worst, it dips into chillier waters.
Yet even amidst all this virtuosity, one track in particular stands tall as a masterpiece: “Rainbow,” a well-named eight-minute epic that rolls through a wave-like arc. Every element of “Mirrored”’s power is here: from the hurried beginning that recalls opener “Race: In,” to a trough of gentle feedback and a rising return to frenzy, the song perfectly captures the singular power of Battles. As an encyclopedic summary of all the album’s virtues, it serves as the definite high point of an album brimming with standouts.
“Mirrored” is not an album for the uninitiated; neither is it one for the jaded. Battles, who might have been world-famous pop stars had they debuted in the next century, invite their listeners to hear them in their own mechanical language. As with all talented innovators, they offer ample reward for fans with a little persistence. Nothing is better for the ear or the mind than something new or strange, and nothing pleases the hips and legs more than a catchy record. “Mirrored” is both, and I wholeheartedly urge all interested readers to nab it as soon as they can.