By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
THE BATTLE ROYALE
Wake Up, Thunderbabe
There are two kinds of Battle Royale explosions. One brings death and one brings dance. If you're a character in the foreign film Battle Royale (based on the novel of the same name), an explosion means a device locked around your neck by Japanese government operatives has detonated. Your life, as a junior high student forced to participate in an annual battle to the death with your similarly conscripted classmates, is over.
However, if you've just popped Wake Up, Thunderbabe in your stereo, an explosion means the kids in the Afternoon Records outfit the Battle Royale have set their synthesizers to "thermonuclear beat-down." Your night, as an electro-loving, ironic-robot-dancing groovehound, is just beginning.
Congratulations! I guess the youth really do have it easier in America.
Of course, the Battle Royale have matured since their last release, 2006's Sparkledust Fantasy—it shows in their album title, right? Maybe Thunderbabe used to party past dawn, her whole life a blast of pixilated melody and clumsily charming pop choruses, but now she's got to wake up. Some of the Battle Royale are still teenagers, but they're all out of high school now. It's time to be a little more responsible.
Yet a young band has the same right to play with its identity as a person does. And the Battle Royale are switching it up like the kid who cycles through an identity a month all freshman year. The first six songs on Thunderbabe are atrial-flutter-inducing electronica made cozy and playful by big bombs of fuzzed-out organ chords and naive multi-tracked boy/girl vocal echoes. But then the last five songs lose the drum machine beats, keep the singing, and swap in an acoustic guitar for straight-up happy days indie folk.
Singer and synthman Mark Ritsema is also a guitarist with pop-scuzz janglers Mouthful of Bees. In the beginning, when he and bassist Grace Fiddler shout, "When will you be done? Did you forget where you came from?," it's like hearing your friends on the playground calling out to you through the detention-room window. Um, provided that your school playground resembled one of those fluorescent-lit grids from Tron.
On "Notebooks," Sam Robertson picks out bit-chip horror show organ lines before the disco squall of '80s-primitive machine tempo and the bleeding, agitated guitar from John Pelant kick in to create a track just as danceable as the others, but quite a bit darker. Organs will sound sinister, there's no avoiding it. As a result, Wake Up, Thunderbabe is front-loaded with sonic pieces that would fit in quite nicely were one to score the hunting and chasing of the dystopia-dwelling teens in Battle Royale.
As for the back end? Well, unplugged pop cheerer "Scream Scream" actually contains the lyric "We were porch swing singing in Minnesota/As the rain came in from out of the Dakotas," which really burst my technobubble. That's a shame, because it was shiny and metallic and bouncy, and I simply cannot see my own reflection in it when someone starts playing a harmonica, or shaking sleigh bells, for the love of St. Nick. Yes, these instruments show up here, although you would have bet any sum of money against sleigh bells for the first 20 minutes of the record.
I can't hold a grudge against the band, though. (Should they appear as an alt-country outfit on their next release, I might revise my tolerant stance.) For now, there's too much sweet pleasure in the simple, stripped-down melodies. The mood is kind of trembling, kind of hopeful—it's as if they're first drafts of Shins songs. Most of all, there's a level of camaraderie, in every shared verse and joined-in chorus, that gives this Battle Royale a warmth like a neck muffler—not a bomb-housing tracking collar, but a winter scarf hand-knitted for you by a group of your best friends.