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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“).


battles_narrowweb__300x4220


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.


Shuffle


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


jazzdrummer
Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


WARNING: BEFORE COMMENTING ON THIS POST, WRITE YOUR COMMENT ON A SEPARATE DOCUMENT AND THEN PASTE IT INTO THE COMMENT BOX. WE HAVE BEEN HAVING PROBLEMS WITH COMMENTS GETTING LOST ON THIS PARTICULAR POST. THANKS.


*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.



Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3


Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.


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9 Responses to ““Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis”

  1. brent says:

    I would love love love a Production and Mixing & Mastering Analysis for this song. I would find that hugely beneficial!

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks a lot for this, I love Battles, and your analyses are always really interesting. This one was a bit… small in scope, but I guess the song is a bit too weird to do a full-blown melodical analysis.

    I agree with brent, a Production and Mixing & Mastering Analysis would also be brilliant, if you can find the time.

    All that’s left to say is: Keep up the good work! :)

  3. FixYourMix says:

    @Brent- There actually was a production analysis in the works for this song, though with the frequency that we are trying to blog now, I don’t know that it will see the light of day unless we were to devote an entire sonic deconstruction week to it, which I’d love to do although we have several other songs lined up for that first.

    @Martin- I agree, I could have gone more in depth but I’ve been staying busy and only had time to highlight the aspects which are most unique and useful for the average songwriter–you are correct, this post would have turned into a monster if I had taken it section by section as I have done with previous songs.

    Thanks for your comments guys!

  4. Jourdan says:

    Love that fact that you guys even chose this song in the 1st place. I’ve been obsessed with Battles for a few years now and they especially shine live, so see them if you get the chance.

    Also I stumbled upon a song that has eerie composition similarities to “Atlas”

    ween – “so many people in the neighborhood”
    from the album Quebec.

    Check it out!

  5. Fuzu says:

    Ooh gosh i just wrote a huge comment and when i submitted it it come up blank! Please please tell me it worked properly? I dont want to sumit it again if i do not have to! Either the blog bugged out or i am just stuipd, the latter doesnt surprise me lol.

  6. Keith says:

    Sorry Fuzu, we don’t appear to have received your comment. I apologize! Haven’t heard of this problem.

    -Keith

  7. Good Morning just thought i would let you know that i had a issue with your blog appearing frozen also. Must be chimpanzees in the page.

  8. Please tell me if I’m wrong, but Jazz is all about beat 2 and 4. I think what you meant was that a shuffle drummer would emphasise the beats on the snare (back beat), but a Jazz drummer would use the high hats instead.

    By the way, I’m a fan of the blog. Everything is super well written and very scholarly.

  9. […] Long ago and far away I was a college music major, and to this day I remain an incomparable dork, so I was quite pleased when I stumbled across a post by the online audio production consultants at Fix Your Mix which examined one of my favorite new rock bands through those academia-colored glasses. […]

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