Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.
Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony
What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.
The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).
D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.
Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.
The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing
Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:
- Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
- Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.
I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.
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*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.
**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.