Behold the Battles, Behold Giantess

Arguably the first shot fired in the great Canadian indie renaissance of this young century was “Letter from an Occupant.” This shimmering, frenetic pop nugget, initially attributed to the New Pornographers and Neko, appeared on a benefit compilation CD for local charity A Loving Spoonful titled Vancouver Special way back in April 2000. The excitement around “Letter from an Occupant” begot Mass Romantic, a big indie hit in the United States at least, which begot all sorts of excellence from the likes of Neko Case, Destroyer, Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, A.C. Newman, Black Mountain and, one might argue, even Broken Social Scene, the Unicorns, and Arcade Fire. Tucked into the track list of Vancouver Special is a song called “Lycanthropy” by a band called the Battles. “Lycanthropy” didn’t take the pre-blog indie world by storm like “Letter from an Occupant” did, but it should have. It’s fucking great.

“Hey good wood, I got the photos today / and it shows and it shows / the two of us have been hanging around” are perfectly fine, vaguely romantic pop lyrics, but what do they have to do with lycanthropy? Who was writing about werewolves in this pre-Twilight era? “Lycanthropy” offers neither a concrete narrative nor a straightforward arrangement, despite clocking in at barely over 3 minutes. There seem to be 4 or 5 sections squeezed into the song, though it never feels cramped. The vocals recall Robyn Hitchcock or Wreckless Eric, the guitars clean and bright, the bass decidedly fuzzy. The instrumental break features dueling ebow solos. Just fucking great.

The internet is light on information about the Battles, who apparently formed in Vancouver sometime in the mid-1990s.  The Battles’ leader was Stephen Wood, who played lead guitar in Destroyer during the fantastic Thief /Streethawk: A Seduction/This Night period (note: per Mr. Wood himself in the comment below, the wicked guitar work on Destroyer’s This Night was one Mr. Nick Bragg). Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and Loscil’s Scott Morgan were also members of the Battles at some point, though Wood was seemingly the creative force. “Lycanthropy” seems to be the earliest recording available, though it’s possible that the hip British Columbia kids from that era might be sitting on demos or self-released cassettes. If so, cough them up.

The Battles’ music conjures up both the Kinks and Television Personalities: jangly, catchy, erudite and decidedly Anglophilic. Their songs are expansive and serpentine – passing through multiple sections marked by tempo shifts and changes in dynamics. This is smart, well-crafted art pop unafraid to rock out or get a little weird. Whereas better-received contemporaries the Clientele filtered their retro pop through the baroque wistfulness of Left Banke, the Battles mixed T. Rex with S.F. Sorrow or Parachute-era Pretty Things.

The Battles quickly followed their appearance on Vancouver Special with a self-released full-length titled Lycanthropy in 2001. The cover art for Lycanthropy is just atrocious. It looks like some sort of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art with a rooster in the center flanked by mosquitos.  I can’t imagine anyone unknowingly glancing at this CD at a shop like Zulu Records in Vancouver and feeling anything but bemused revulsion. But the songs – the songs! The songs on Lycanthropy are an embarrassment of riches, packed with thematic shifts, lyrical flourishes and bold references to canonical rock music. “Witness to a Crime” quotes the main riff from “Born to Run” in an aside on piano. “Flight of the Crow” begins as Syd Barrett-esque psych ballad before sprouting a blissed-out instrumental coda. “Lycanthropy” is rerecorded a bit faster with vastly improved fidelity, though a vocal timing flub by Wood is left in there to presumably reinforce the inescapable artifice of pop music (or something like that). The album’s biggest flaw is starting off with its weakest song, “Home Lovely Home,” which meanders around for five minutes like the Grateful Dead at their least detestable.

How did the world receive Lycanthropy? As far as I can tell – barely. One can assume that Wood got pulled into touring obligations with Destroyer as the Merge Records promotional machine and fervent championing from the likes of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle increased the band’s profile. I saw Destroyer play Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco in 2002, their first show in the Bay Area, and I assume Wood was playing guitar. I don’t remember the Battles ever coming down to play, however, and I was going out to a lot of shows at the time. The Battles must have largely sat on the proverbial shelf, existing primarily as a recording project and barely known outside of Vancouver music circles.

Five long years later, the Battles’ second album was released by venerable Minneapolis-based label, Soft Abuse. Tomorrow’s Eager Hands does everything Lycanthropy does well, only better. The artwork is horribly beautiful, whereas Lycanthropy’s is beautifully horrible. A semi-nude adolescent girl, standing before a giant crescent moon, draws her bow back taut in heroic realism. The scene seems mythical or occult, yet playfully self-aware of its own creepy bombast. Songs like “(Make Love) In the Beds of Rivers” and “In Exelsis, Yeah” live up to the promise of their titles. It’s a monster of an album, despite shitty, middling reviews from the likes of Pitchfork and Pop Matters. Once again, the market yawned in the face of the Battles. 2006 was the height of poppy indie folk, and nary a banjo, melodica or mandolin can be found on Tomorrow’s Eager Hands.

Derailing any anemic progress into the greater indie consciousness made by Tomorrow’s Eager Hands was a well-heeled, well-promoted Brooklyn band called, simply, Battles who appeared in 2004. Rather than deploying Soft Abuse’s likely nonexistent legal resources to fight for the name or rechristening the band something like Thee Battles or The Vancouver Battles, Wood reintroduced the band as Giantess. In 2007, Soft Abuse released Giantess by Giantess, featuring a song called “Giantess.” Remember that? No? I do. I was fired up. I ran out to Sonic Boom records in Seattle (back when there were still two locations in Capitol Hill) and bought the CD the week it came out.

Giantess both trades in the strengths of Lycanthropy and Tomorrow’s Eager Hands and tries out more straightforward rock maneuvers. Wood seems committed, at least at times, to making his music less affected and more effectively garage-y. Giantess can’t fully avoid being elusive, but when the songs snap into place they work, sounding like Pavement at their most anthemic. “Stella Please” revolves around a stately, gargantuan guitar riff and “Snakebite” is a ripe, frantic rave-up of the highest order. The album opens with a bash-filled homage to going out titled “Saturday Night” that, if I remember correctly, was the free MP3 circulated to promote Giantess.  Despite these thrusts at Dionysian rock fervor, Giantess could not escape a certain elegance. The songs still twist and shift, the lyrics turn back on themselves and Wood’s cleverness can’t be damped down by distortion pedals and heavy drum beats. While it fails as indie party music along the lines of, say, Japandroids, it fully succeeds as an album for folks who like smart rock music. It also seemed to have failed to make any type of commercial or broad critical dent, and Wood has yet to reappear under the Battles or Giantess moniker.

Worthy bands making worthwhile music that fails to find an audience is neither a new nor particularly interesting notion.  The more compelling quandary facing Stephen Wood and his body of work in 2015 is whether lost songs can find a second life in a world in which all information and music (callously aggregated as “content”) exists in ubiquitous perpetuity. People’s hard drives and playlists are sinfully stuffed with more music than they can ever drag their ears across, much less actually listen to.  Under these conditions, how can a band like the Battles / Giantess acquire the saintly glow of rediscovered treasure? What chance is there that some 20 year old music nerd in Edinburgh or Baltimore or Perth will unearth Tomorrow’s Eager Hands and revere it like earlier generations did Big Star’s Third or the first Modern Lovers record (especially when it was hard to get a copy of either)? How will they find the time? What about Hefner or Minmae or Strictly Ballroom or the Rum Diary, how will they get their due? In Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus finds solace in the idea that one day his private writings would be sent to “the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria,” satisfied that “someone was to read them there after a few thousand years.” Does the internet count as the great library of the world now?

Working in favor of a Battles and Giantess revival is the fact that, provided a buzz does grow for this music, the songs will be readily available. Tomorrow’s music nerd may not crave the visceral thrill of finding a rare record in a stack somewhere, content instead to stream it from their phone or watch or Google Glasses (God, I hope not) or however it’s going to work when ’00s rock starts getting a critical second look. So the key is to start the buzz. Bring on the future!

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6 Responses to Behold the Battles, Behold Giantess

  1. Keith Parry says:

    Hey, thanks for the great words about the Vancouver Battles. You made Rob McBeth’s (the guitar player) day. I helped them manufacture and distribute the first album, if anyone is looking for a cheap copy I sell them on discogs…

    cheers and thanks, Keith

  2. Jon Rooney says:

    Thanks Keith for making Lyconthropy available – it was hard to track down years ago. And if Rob McBeth or other of the Battles have stories to share (is there a lost record somewhere? did they ever tour? what’s with the adolescent archer?), we’d love to hear them.

  3. Levi Fuller says:

    For what it’s worth, I kinda like that Lycanthropy album cover.

  4. Stephen Wood says:

    Hi Jon,
    Sorry for the tardy response , I was a little bashfull, but thanks for all the kind words!
    I lost a harddrive back in the late aughts, and thought twice about songwork again, though i did manage to save a few choice morsels…I’ve recently turned my hand at instrumental work in my current project Kensington Gore with fellow Vancouverite Scott Gubbles…., bit different, but definately some follow though for the trained ear.
    Yer Pal,
    PS:Although I’d love to take the credit, the wicked guitar work on Destroyer’s ‘This Night’ was Nick Bragg ripping one in a new light.

  5. Jon Rooney says:

    Hi Stephen! Thanks so much for the comment (and for all of the great music) and for clearing up my mistake about “This Night”. I recently picked up the Kensington Gore record it’s fantastic. From the description: “Who doesn’t like a little bloodletting? Kensington gore is the recipe used to create blood in Hammer horror films. Made up of Stephen Wood and Scott Gubbels, KG have been holed up in I.H.O.J. Studios over the last year or so putting together this 10 song sonic mutation. Some connection to keyboard-oriented Krautrock bands like Harmonia and La Dusseldorf may be warranted. Perhaps if eighties Krautrock was good this record would fit the bill.” – now that’s some outstanding one-sheet action.

    On the topic of lost music, what’s up with Infernal Devices?

  6. Pingback: It’s Not Good for Anyone to Have a Body of Work Denied: An Interview with Stephen Wood — The Monarch Review

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