Not since 20 Jazz Funk Greats has there been an album titled as insincerely as La Di Da Di. An entirely instrumental album of transhuman post-rock and fiberglass math, it couldn’t be much more distant from the innocent singalongs deceitfully promised by its name. Its prickly riffs and underhanded rhythms slot frigidly into matrices that sound as far removed from childish or folkish choruses as possible, evoking a domain where convoluted logic is the sole driver of life, not human wills, sentiments and passions. Somehow, however, its ostensibly soulless fidelity to tight circuits reveals a stubbornly contrary humanity underneath, an aversion to conforming to over-exploited and trite notions of what “the human” is. As a result, it eventually redeems its initially dishonest birthmark, emerging as an appropriately naive first attempt at creating lullabies for a new kind of human culture.
That’s not to say that the openings of Battles’ third album don’t play out like some denatured mechanistic ballet. The angularity, sharpness and linearity of “The Yabba” brings to mind the work of Russian artist, Dmitry Morozov, who recently programmed a homemade stringed instrument to respond musically to fluctuations in the value of bitcoins. It’s easy enough to imagine that Williams, Konopka and Stanier, the three remaining members of the NYC band, are a similarly autonomous instrument on this opener, reacting algorithmically to data via syncopated twitches and coiled progressions. They skitter through tightly wound phrases and heavily processed guitar on their way to a satisfyingly energetic finale, a flurry of rapid hi-hats and buoyant electronics that, for all we know from the band’s steely and clinical outer workings, was possibly induced by a downswing in the global rate of extreme poverty.
A joke, of course, yet at the same time it’s often difficult to understand what aims Battles are pursuing throughout La Di Da Di. Notwithstanding the excellent “Yabba” and similarly conclusive upsurges of nervy musicianship like “FF Bada,” a good portion of the album unfolds seemingly without aim, comprising such cyclical and inconsequential tracks as the computerized “Dot Net” and the binary soundscaping of “Cacio E Pepe.” In “Dot Net,” bleeping synths gently rove through the same pattern for several bars, descend into a lull for a few more measures, and then start up again, duplicating exactly the same chords and intensity as they had before. What purpose they and their polite repetitions have isn’t entirely clear, yet the upshot of their undifferentiated and uneventful meanderings is that the song comes across as even more sterile and inhuman than its cyber-aesthetic would’ve had things on its own.
And the sad fact is that, even with La Di Da Di‘s stronger numbers, this sterility and sense of insignificance is never too far away. For example, “Non-Violence” revolves around an enjoyably winding guitar line that’s coated in delay and reverb, yet apart from an increase in cymbal action and some electronic swirls it hardly ever changes, despite another momentary bridge that inevitably throws the trio back into the initial lick. Added to other similar exercises in ornate muzak, it helps to erect a barrier against ever truly engaging with the album, against ever being immersed in or enthralled by its vision of 21st Century “rock” and the world out of which such music emanates.
It’s tempting to claim that all this cold inconsequentiality is the lingering result of Tyondai Braxton’s now 5-year-old departure from the band, from the threesome’s lack of a leading focus that might pull it from one crescendo to the next. However, what prevents La Di Da Di from being as enjoyable as it might have been is not that it’s unfocused, but that it’s too focused, adhering to the same basic formula too dogmatically and too frequently. Given the experience of the musicians involved, the most plausible explanation for this immovable conformity is that it’s wholly intentional. Indeed, the album’s ironical title is already some indication that the band are deliberately toying with expectations, inasmuch as they’re mocking the idea that they need a vocalist to get along. It would therefore come as little surprise if they were also purposefully abandoning the notion that music should pursue obvious endings and progressions, or that it should be emotive, cathartic or ecstatic.
In view of this, a cut like the angularly slinking “Megatouch” is less a failure to reproduce such traditionally human constructs as narrative, teleology and emotion, and more a willful attempt to defy and eschew them completely, as if in protest against how they constrict and damage individuals. Its flickering trains of post-guitar and warped grooves amble by in complete peace, repeating in complete insensitivity to the world around them, and even if they can once again be charged with insignificance and unimportance, they are significant and important precisely to the extent that they’re guilty of such a charge.
Yes, there is a significance inherent to Battle’s flagrant disregard for conventional wisdom on what it is to be red-blooded people in a red-blooded rock band. Their intractable attachment to their own narrow and almost emotionless logic, as manifested in tracks like the serene staccato of “Luu Le,” is in fact a strangely and vulnerably human trait, betraying a wish to exceed hackneyed and restrictive conceptions of “humanity”. Accordingly, La Di Da Di sees them wanting to establish their own version of what it is to be human, a version that perhaps isn’t so impulsive, violent or egotistical. It’s therefore completely appropriate that it has the lullaby-invoking name it has, since not only are Battles actually a simple, elementary band underneath the hi-tech facade, but they’re also a band whose music is intended to nurture the development of something new, vibrant and more hopeful. Perhaps they don’t quite get there on La Di Da Di, but they come somewhere close.