Welcome to Ian Williams Day here at ABITF. If you don't know who that is, sit tight and you'll soon have some idea why he gets his own day here and all manner of other dudes don't. Not only was he part of the volatile dynamic behind the quintessential math rock group of the 90s, but on the whole he represents one of the most creative guitar players of the last 20 years. He never comes off as a virtuoso or anything, but even without that aspect the albums that feature him on guitar are generally incredible displays of what I call quasi-minimalist playing. What I mean is that he has his place in the overall composition, and that part is simultaneously just a part of the overall tapestry of sound and a very well thought out and stand out bit of guitar playing in its own right. He never goes out of his way to prove his mettle on the guitar, but he always manages to do it anyway with seemingly little effort.
For me, this style didn't fully come into play until Don Caballero's swan song American Don. Not only was it the only DC album where he wasn't part of a mind-bendingly awesome guitar interplay duo with Matt Banfield, it's also the album where the band got excessively pretty. Their previous three releases, all of which are good-to-great mind you, were much more in-your-face, loud, noisy and unrelentingly complex. American Don is still complex, but the other elements of the Don Cab sound have been stripped away. There's no distorted outbursts, no pounding drums, no extended codas of atonal noise while someone saws a cymbal in half - it's basically a math-rock album where the rock half of the equation is dialed down to a 2 or a 3 while the math component is left at a 10. Hell there are days that I consider it more of a jazz album than anything resembling rock; it has all the hallmarks of a classic piece of ensemble playing where every member is on top of their game and no one is extraneous. Don Cab hinted at this type of thing on the best parts of What Burns Never Returns but on American Don that's the primary style, and it results in the band's best album.
Aside from Williams' fluid playing you've got Damon Che, probably the best drummer in modern rock-adjacent music proving he's equally adept at more contemplative pieces as he is at the full-bore rock pieces he's primarily known for. He doesn't dial down the complexity of his playing at all, just applies it with less vigor than previously. He's still just as fluid as ever too, letting the songs mutate and evolve with the ease you'd expect from the guy who composed the three previous DC albums. New bassist Eric Em, a holdover from Williams even more subtle and textured Storm and Stress project fits into these surroundings quite well, and his chemistry with Williams is evident. At its heart though, American Don is Williams' album. I've heard that Che used to say that his drumming was the only necessary element of early Don Cab albums, and I can see that on some level for the first three, but Williams is easily the focus of this one. That much is made clear by the opening of "Fire Back About Your New Baby's Sex" where he lays down three concurrent guitar lines over a very understated Che beat. The song goes on to be much more of a full band piece, but Williams is still the major focal point of both the main riffs and the colour around the edges of the track. The core of the album is much more collaborative, relying less on Che's 'holy fuck' drumming than on how well it coalesces with his bandmates' equally fluid playing, but the real personality that the album exudes is more due to Williams' riffs that populate the margins of each track than Che's much less frequent outbursts. It's not surprising that just as Williams kind of asserted his presence as a worthy foil for Che that the band imploded, I gather that Che is a very strong personality andanytime that sort of person gets encroached on it never lasts too long.
After Don Cab disbanded, it took four years for Williams' next project to emerge, but given the material found on that initial trio of Battles EPs it was well worth the wait. I'm not gonna go into much talk about those, but they definitely laid the groundwork for what was to come on the band's full length debut Mirrored a full three years later. This was a different kind of ensemble for sure, heavily reliant on lock-step drum patterns and tight, tight interplay between the other members. There were more grooves, riffs that had time to stick before they changed and a heavy ration of keyboards. The funny thing was that if you look at the band members' pedigree Battles was the last thing you'd have expected them to be part of. Bassist Dave Konopka was an unknown quantity, and de facto leader Tyondai Braxton was likewise relatively new to recording but carried around the distinction of being the son of legendary free jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Rounding out the quartet was former Helmet and Tomahawk drummer John Stanier, whose style as far as I knew was much more aggressive than he displayed on any Battles material. So you have a fluid guitarist best known for his work with a seminal math rock ensemble, an experimental keyboardist with ties to free jazz and a drummer responsible for stuff like "In the Meantime" joining together to make the music that robots fuck to. Unprecedented as that was the results remain unambiguously fascinating.
What unites those three personalities more than anything is their facility with complex material. The stuff on Mirrored doesn't immediately appear to have any appreciable complexity to it, but closer listens reveal a huge amount of subtle interplay between Braxton, Williams and Konopka. The key element of the interplay isn't necessarily their instruments though, but Braxton's treated within an inch of their life vocals. Take something like "Race: In" where Braxton's wordless vocalizing gets used as a counterpoint to his keyboard pattern, or "Ddiamondd"'s fascinating synthesis of vocals and guitar into one single entity. The strictly instrumental stuff is just as rich with interplay as well; I'd liken the dynamic of the band in most moments to them being encased in a cubic trampoline, bouncing around each other but never colliding. Each element is clean and sharp, fully defined enough to stand out amongst the relentless playing coming from all parties. The vocals add another layer to the party, but they aren't necessary to the album's overall aura (outside of one moment that we'll get to in the other half of this project much, much later on).
Probably the key difference between Don Cab and Battles is the idea of fluidity vs. rigidity. American Don is defined primarily by its malleability, the fact that the songs are easily shifted into all manner of different sounds by the whims of its players. Battles' material is rigid above all else, locked into a series of constant grooves over which the rest of the band engages in some of the most creative interplay of any act this decade. Don Cab were loose, cohesive to a fault but easily shifted into different realms while Battles were tight, never yielding to even the slightest pressure. They're two bands at opposite ends of the math-rock spectrum sonically as well, with Battles owing as much to classic krautrock's motorik relentlessness as Don Cab do to Sonic Youth's jammier moments fed through some sort of complexifying algorithm. I'd hesitate to say either band is better than the other since they're so far removed from each other, but the edge goes to American Don if only for the sense that you never quite now where it's gonna go next. There's exctiement to be found on Mirrored as well but nothing as rewarding as that.
Coming up tomorrow: The decade of the comeback that exceeded expectations, part 1.