For a band known for experimentation, such convention is somehow incredibly unconventional.
Battles’ second full-length Warp release, Gloss Drop, begins with a distinctly Battles sound: percussive guitar (or are they keyboard?) melodies moving amidst atmospheric bass and guitar until they meet rock solid, propulsive drumming, at which point the groove takes over. Once that groove gets going, Battles throws a couple of surprises into the mix. Steel drum sounds enter and add a calypso flair to the song. At first it feels a bit odd, but then it becomes clear that the timbre of the steel drums isn’t so very different from the signature guitar tapping of Ian Williams. Metallic and staccato, the steel drums and tapped guitar arpeggios have a sort of kinship, and this new addition to Battles’ sound quickly starts to make sense. The second song, “Ice Cream”, continues the trend and asserts the overarching theme of Gloss Drop.
“Ice Cream” is the first of four songs that feature vocals on Gloss Drop, but gone is the tweaked cartoon hyperactivity of former Battles member Tyondai Braxton’s heavily processed vocals. Those vocals helped define Mirrored, Battles’ first full length, but were also a source of polarization. Matias Aguayo’s vocals on “Ice Cream” are catchy, fun, pop vocals. For a band known for experimentation, such convention is somehow incredibly unconventional. Aguayo’s vocals and the upbeat instrumentation coalesce to form one of the strangest, most interesting summer party jams ever made.
The next three songs, “Futura,” “Inchworm,” and “Wall Street” are more like the Battles that fans are probably expecting, albeit with a greater sense of playfulness. Ian Williams’ trademark simultaneous guitar, keyboard, and looping are as busy as ever, and John Stanier’s heavy, perfectly timed drumming and Dave Konopka’s grooving bass propel the songs in that distinctly Battles way. Gloss Drop helps make the case that Battles may very well be the most rhythmically sophisticated band in rock and roll. The interplay between Williams, Stanier, and Konopka produces dense, intricate compositions that keep things interesting after dozens of listens.
“My Machines”, the darkest song on Gloss Drop, features Gary Numan (of “Cars” fame) and bolsters the use of terms like robot and cyborg that have been used to describe Battles many times before. Driving percussion and guitar merge with Numan’s vocals, and a barrage of synthesizers, into a churning, mechanical take on rock music that calls to mind some of the better industrial metal and electronic music of the 1980s and 1990s. “My Machines” makes extensive use of one of Battles’ greatest strengths, which is their ability to blend and layer. Things become much more interesting when the listener is unsure of what they are hearing. Guitars, percussion, synthesizers, and vocals maintain distinct sonic space, yet move together and apart in such a way that it becomes difficult to know who or what is being played at any given time.
“Dominican Fade” and “Sweetie & Shag” both further the cause of combining pop and experimental music. “Dominican Fade” opens with percussion similar to Mirrored opener “Race – In” but similarities quickly dissolve when the cheerful steel drum melody enters. “Dominican Fade” lets math rock know it’s alright to cut loose and have that tropical umbrella drink. “Sweetie & Shag” features Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino and offers up more surprises for the long time Battles fan, in the form of catchy, almost cute, indie pop. Following the double dose of fun, pop music is the track “Toddler,” a quiet, peaceful interlude which serves as a transition from the cheerful pop of the two previous songs, and the noisy experimentation of the two following.
“Rolls Bayce” and “White Electric” are both instrumentals that show more of Battles’ range. “Rolls Bayce” is a glitchy, shuffling, damn near danceable number and “White Electric” reminds us that Battles is made up of guys that used to be known for serious, hard hitting music (Helmet, Don Caballero) that is, until the heaviness gives way to a bouncing, music box meets carnival outro.
Gloss Drop ends with a song that would rival “Ice Cream” for most surprising new Battles song. Boredoms member Yamantaka Eye lends his vocals to “Sundome,” a track that begins with reverb and tape echo drenched dub, straight out of Jamaica. The island theme continues with more of the steel drum/guitar interplay. The song continues to meander and develop into something that sounds like the Talking Heads if they had been around for the 20 years of indie music that followed their lead. “Sundome” ends Gloss Drop in much the same way that it begins, with a band branching out, expanding their sound, and challenging convention by exploring something far too often lacking in experimental music: fun.
Purchase Gloss Drop at your local record store, or if you must, on iTunes.
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