Tension. It's a key ingredient in music that strives to be epochal, music that doesn't just tug at your emotions, it bottles them up and carbonates them, gently adding pressure until they explode all over your shirt. It also tends to instigate great art. Battles Olé, Drums & Tuba's third album on Righteous Babe Records, captures the band at its most intense, building impenetrable sonic walls only to smash them to bits like a hyperactive child who has grown tired of his toys.
Everyone from Beethoven to Led Zeppelin knew how to maximize dramatic potential. The NYC-based ensemble of drums (Tony Nozero), tuba (Brian Wolff) and guitar (Neal McKeeby) continues in this tradition, giving a clinic on the art of tension and release - which wasn't purely a musical exercise. After a decade of rigorous touring and artistic pressure, the band had hit a wall, and after hearing Nozero's take, it's plain that the tension on Battles Olé is art imitating life. "We were desperately trying to find ourselves musically again. It felt like a final gasp. At so many times during this two-year process, we were reaching places that were very uncomfortable."
Despite these trials and tribulations, the band soldiered on, creating a landmark record in the process. Battles Olé features the appearance of an instrument that had been foreign to D&T records - the human voice. On the ambitious opening track, "Two Dollars," Nozero adds his impassioned, Johnny Rotten snarl to a song that is painstakingly built over the course of several minutes. The track slowly grows from a landscape of wispy, robotic noises to a slick, heist-movie groove, gaining momentum with every bar. The vocals just add to this sense of restlessness, until the tension finally explodes, in a volcanic blaze of power chords. This refreshing burst of simplicity sends "Two Dollars" into the stratosphere, lending true significance to Drums & Tuba's mad studio concoctions.
With Battles Olé, this self-proclaimed "rock band" has managed to harness its inner turmoil, expanding on the infectiously bizarre formula of its two previous RBR releases, Vinyl Killer (2001) and Mostly Ape (2002). The nuts and bolts are still there: Wolff's guttural, funky tuba lines and soaring trumpet harmonies, McKeeby's acrobatic axe stabs and impeccably odd scale choices, and Nozero's steady bombast. The difference here is the songwriting, which is a direct result of the band's unhealthy addiction to performing live - D&T rips through over 200 shows a year, replicating their intricate compositions via a jungle of samplers and pedals. The buoyancy of Mostly Ape is gone, in favor of looming storms in songs like "Magnum Opie." It's a foreboding mix of staccato tuba hits, guitar noodling and otherworldly oohs and ahhs, a 10-minute voyage into dim caverns and inky twilights. It might be the band's bravest step yet, because its shadowy tunnels have a glorious destination: a frenetic, key-punishing organ solo that slams a happy ending on an otherwise gothic tale.
Drums & Tuba has always dared to make music that's full of tension - and this time around, what almost killed them has most definitely made them stronger. On Battles Olé, there's a bustle in the hedgerow, but don't be alarmed now - this is a listening experience of epic proportions.