When the term IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) was coined, it was with the idea that only computers could truly replicate the mechanical rhythms, cluttered melodies, and outlandish textures of experimental electronic acts like Autechre and Boards of Canada. However, since 2007’s Mirrored, art-rock trio Battles have challenged this very notion, pushing themselves to create unimaginably virtuosic music with the aid of an array of effects pedals and digital processing software. The result is a singular sound that blurs the line between synthesizers and guitars, industrial techno and prog-rock, and, ultimately, man and machine.
While Mirrored utilized ex-member Tyondai Braxton’s computer-generated chipmunk wail, and 2011’s Gloss Drop featured an array of vocalists lending relatively traditional pop melodies to the band’s peculiar song forms, La Di Da Di forgoes vocals altogether. It’s a bold move for a group whose dedication to exploratory but structured improvisation can border on academic, but the album deals primarily in groove and propulsion. Drummer John Stanier is the band’s not-so-secret weapon here, lending hardcore intensity to the otherwise jazzy phrases of “Summer Simmer” and switchblade sharpness to the shuffling hi-hats on “Dot Net.”
Opener “The Yabba” initially plays as an overture, repeating a honking keyboard figure and light percussion with the jumpy compulsion of someone counting their breaths in order to prevent a panic attack. Nauseating guitar bends give way to jittery hi-hat accents and, as various counter melodies ebb and flow, a brief moment of calm is hijacked by a drumbeat executed with the maniacal precision of an overheating piston. It’s an inspired opening that navigates varying tempo changes with an almost programmed accuracy, a tribute to the group’s technical skill and profound understanding of momentum.
Undoubtedly freed by their drummer’s ability to glue anything to a predetermined grid, multi-instrumentalists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka continue to transform cartoonishly weird guitar and synthesizer sounds into legitimate vehicles for melody. For instance, “Megatouch,” a sound collage reminiscent of the wackier experiments on Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album, pulls the haunted-house organ from Donkey Kong Country’s classic soundtrack and interpolates it against broken-flute keyboard sounds before settling into a jerky funk groove. “Dot Com” is more atmospheric, utilizing a didgeridoo-sounding opening to create a polyrhythmic vibe beneath what is the most straightforward rock rave-up on the album, power chords and all.
From the distorted tuba-guitars on futuristic fight song “Tricentennial” to the demented elegance of the twitchy, twinkling closer “Luu Le,” La Di Da Di is a weird, wooly, all-over-the-place album that’s about as inside baseball as it gets. It’s hard not to marvel at the athletic rhythms and purposefully inconceivable songs, or try to parse which instruments are being made to sound like other instruments. With La Di Da Di, Battles don’t so much make music that says something about the human condition, but rather, like test pilots pushing jet engines to heretofore unrealized speeds, they make music that explores the boundaries of what humans can do with the aid of technology. In this case, computers don’t erode human idiosyncrasy, they amplify it.