Collaborative projects are almost entirely hit or miss. You get a bunch of musicians together who are fans of each other's work but have never played together, or you get people who would make sense together, and the end results are either better and more interesting than you imaged or incredibly terrible. I had only a vague concept of who the guys in Battles were before I listened to them, but in retrospect it makes sense: Tyondai Braxton (son of legendary avant garde jazz musician Anthony Braxton and experimental musician in his own right), Ian Williams (formerly of underground math rock heroes Don Caballero), John Stanier (of alt. metal/post-hardcore legends Helmet), and Dave Konopka (in some band named Lynx who I guess were/are math rock-y). An interesting mix, to be sure.
Battles had released some EPs before Mirrored came out, but having not heard those I'll just skip the background and say that this album is a flat out monster. Battles sound like math rock as approached from an electronic starting point--it's no wonder they're on Warp records with all the loops and effects pedals going on on this album. Rarely has a band been able to bend technology so strongly to its will and yet sounded so natural and alive, rocked just as hard as classic rock of old. This doesn't sound like people messing about with laptops and pedals even if that's some of what it is. The vocals are treated and looped to a sometimes comical extent; riffs sludge away for minutes before slowing down in a gradual descent, or they bound about in minimalist, interlocking holding patterns that warp time and space. The drums pound into your skull but never in a truly brutal metal sort of way; often there's a sense of groove and bounce to it. The keyboards add a sometimes videogame-sound-effect feel or provide a jazz fusion Rhodes keyboard character to the music (such as on the undulating 'Leyendecker'). All the while, the guitars and bass carouse this way and that, around each other, recalling the obvious Don Caballero connection but taking the effects pedals and finger tapping that Ian Williams began in that band around the time of What Burns Never Returns and going even further. There is a true thrill in listening to this album, a real sense of discovery and invention for the band and the listener.
Despite being mostly instrumental, Mirrored is addictive and endlessly listenable as much for its sense of discovery and invention as it is a surprisingly lyrical and memorable sense of songwriting. Having not heard their earlier material yet, I can't say for sure, but I get the sense that they spent those years experimenting and sketching out a sound/aesthetic that fully bloomed here. 'Tij' is tucked away toward the end of the album but is its most accomplished work, running through a linear progression that keeps building and re-building and never gets repetitive even though it's seven minutes long.
Drawing on elements of electronic music, hard rock, math rock, and even a dash of prog rock (with a healthier sense of fun than normal), Battles have, with Mirrored, proved that sometimes collaborations are more than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, they become the whole. Highly recommended.