Celeste Heule innately understands tension.
Heule has made tension an integral component of her music since her early days in Minneapolis-by-way-of-Madison cult band Sleeping in the Aviary. The talented pianist and saw musician has since gone on to form Battlerat, a dynamic chamber pop outfit that seethes with tension, anxiety, and, ultimately, release.
“I don’t think the anxiety is intentional, but it’s inherent in my songwriting,” Heule says. “I’m constantly creating a dynamic between tension and balance.”
It’s a dynamic that Heule learned from classical music. The constant build and tease toward catharsis is a force Heule has modified into the driving force behind Battlerat’s new EP Done Deal.
Done Deal consists of six songs that could easily run over an hour. Heule’s piano seems liable to overrun the limits of any one song at any one time, like it could cascade out of the waveform into a never-ending crescendo. But before things rollick that far out of control, there’s an inevitable stop. A jerking halt or a hairpinning transition. The only resolve comes when the song finally ends.
Lead single “Faking It” is the EP’s most unhinged entry. In the song, Heule repeatedly asks herself, “Were we just faking it?,” working up to a maddening frenzy. Despite the cyclical questioning, she never comes to an answer.
“It does have a feeling of working something out, even though it’s going back and forth,” she says. “By then end of a song, it feels like a relief that it’s over.”
In their three-year history -- dating back to 2014’s debut Battlerat and including the 2015 EP Spoils -- Battlerat have been a restless group. They’ve had a slew of lineup changes, and they’ve never recorded in the same space twice. Heule says that the wandering has a lot to do with wanting a distinct piano sound on each recording.
With Done Deal, Heule and her band of Ian Stenlund (guitar), Tim Everson (guitar), John McConville (bass), and Cody Brown (drums) set a definite endpoint. Despite the fact that songs like “Cold Light” and “Forward” seem like they could ramble on infinitely, the band needed a sense of closure.
“We’re playing these songs well right now, as a band, so we had to record them,” Stenlund explains. “It was a year of us practicing and working on songs, being directionless. Were we gonna make an album? Were we gonna make an EP? Were we gonna do a space opera?”
The process is antithetical to the overwrought, detail-hammering process Heule has previously used to make music. She’s used to toiling over the mixes and fine-tuning tones into delirium. She isn’t used to delegating her vision down to her bandmates. Moreover, Done Deal is her first Battlerat recording without Sleeping in the Aviary bassist Phil Mahlstadt in the fold. But Done Deal was set up to break her habits.
“There’s a very solitary element to solo piano music that I’ve always related to,” Heule says. “Delegating parts to people and trusting other people to have their own ideas, that took a lot of time. But [Done Deal] became a motto. It became like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
The greatest testament to this mentality is the title track, a 32-second interlude in the middle of the EP. The song is actually longer than Battlerat intended, but the band wanted to throw off people who immediately jump to the title track in search of the project’s greater meaning.
“We’re trying to avoid playing into the audience’s expectations,” McConville says
If that brief title track is an exercise in restraint, it also feels like a preventative measure for Battlerat. As though they knew that, if they kept tweaking and waffling, they’d lose any momentum the songs were meant to bring. Instead of being swallowed by the local music news cycle and forgotten, they put together a collection of songs that captures the discord of their lives as a band and released it with no apologies.
“The content train is constantly rolling, baby,” McConville adds. “You have to be super proactive now. You can’t just keep throwing shit at the wall.”
With: Sass, Elle PF
Where: Eagles #34
When: 9 p.m. Fri. Dec. 15
More from Music