Thursday, November 19, 2009

#42. 'Won't you show me what begins at the edge of town?'

Battles "Atlas"

The reaction that people have to "Atlas" the first time I play it for them is always the same:
  • Appreciative head nodding for the intro
  • Confusion when the vocals enter
  • Gradually resume head nodding after a few lines of the vocals
  • Get considerably more into it until the middle section
  • When it comes back to life the head nodding resumes
  • No comment when the vocals return because they're too busy trying not to dance
Without fail, that's what happens. My stepbrother expressed disdain for the 'chipmunk vocals' until he realized how much his foot was tapping. My dad gave me the second biggest 'wtf' look he's mustered when I put something into the stereo - biggest being for Trout Mask Replica - but eventually turned it up as we headed down the freeway. My mom wondered out loud what the hell was up with the vocals but a mere minute later wanted it on her mp3 player. It never fails; the confusion gives way to genuine enjoyment no matter what your musical likes and dislikes are.

"Atlas" might be the oddest universal song of the decade. It may not have "Hey Ya" levels of 'gets everyone in the room dancin' and singin' within five seconds' appeal, but through sheer relentlessness it seems to be ableto break down every type of person. And for something this unambiguously odd to have that sort of appeal is truly a feat to celebrate. Think about the individual elements of the song: guitars that don't sound like guitars so much as video game synths, the most rigid drumming this side of New Order or Kraftwerk, vocals that take the whole regrettable autotune gimmick to its logical endpoint so that the words don't even matter anymore and a structure that lets one of the most addictive grooves of the decade stop dead for a good 3 minutes right when it gets going. That doesn't exactly sound like the kind of song that will be the subject of anything but underground, and I mean deep underground, obsession from a certain subset of fringe music nerds like myself. It certainly doesn't sound like the kind of song my whole family would wind up liking after some trepidation. And yet it manages to hook everyone I've tried it on without much effort whatsoever. It has a weird kind of power that I can't put my finger on, but I'm glad it has it.

A lot of the credit has to go to John Stanier's drumming. For the dude who was drumming with Helmet at their peak and was part of one iteration of Tomahawk to be providing such a restrained and downright danceable beat seems a bit out of character, but the results are damn near perfect. It's a pretty simple pattern all told, but it works in tandem with Dave Konopka's subtle bass line, Ian Williams' guitar work and Tyondai Braxton's loopy vocal and programming work to lay the foundation for an irrestistable groove. I'm including the vocals because for all intents and purposes they're just another layer of instrumentation, so heavily processed that even with the lyrics in front of you it's hard to determine what's actually being said (the rare occasions I'd try to sing along to it early on lead to 'people won't be people if they eat this sandwich/put em in the dark if your head hurts an atlas') but so integral to the song that it's not like they can be ignored. The fact that so many people seem to undergo a 180 on them as the song progresses, either that or they get so caught up in the groove that they're willing to put their distaste aside, just goes to show how much they get absorbed into the meat of the song by the end, and when that meat is as undeniably groovy a it is for "Atlas" even the most seemingly offputting bits can be overcome by it.

There's also the trick of letting the song completely die in the middle only to rebuild the groove piece by piece over a few minutes. It's the same sort of thing that pushed "You Made Me Realize" into my list of absolute favorite songs ever, the willingness to interrupt one of the most undeniable grooves of the decade for the sole purpose of bringing it back so gradually that it feels like an event when it hits. Battles do this part so methodically that it makes for the most fascinating part of the song. Hearing the four members gradually rebuild the song from nothing but Konopka's bass pulse while charting it through some interesting new riffs that all seem to lead right back to Williams' solo in the most logical possible way despite the serpentine path it takes is nothing short of exhilarating, to put it simply. The minute Williams' gets into that octave-jump guitar riff (you know the one I'm talking about) might be the single most exciting moment in the band's repertoire, and given my affection for Mirrorred as a whole that's not exactly light praise.

It's also a great example of why long-form singles, that's to say singles that don't abide by the 3-5 minute radio range, generally manage to work better for me. A 3-5 minute song couldn't do half the things that "Atlas" does anywhere near as well. It couldn't dismantle and rebuild itself, it couldn't put so many unlikely people under its spell, and it certainly wouldn't outrank the last 20 or so songs without having the freedom to run for seven minutes. The fact that it doesn't seem to take anywhere near that long to play out says as much about its greatness as the 700-or-so words here ever could.

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