Despite their members’ relative individual star power, experimental math rock supergroup Battles seemed to sneak up on much of the blogosphere with their 2007 showstopper, Mirrored. Drummer John Stanier was a niche legend for bringing the thunder with both alt-metal heroes Helmet and Melvins/Jesus Lizard/Mr. Bungle supergroup Tomahawk, guitarist Dave Konopka made some noise in Chicago’s math heyday as a member of Lynx, Ian Williams fingertapped guitars for math godfathers Don Caballero, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton had amassed a reputation for his orchestral loop work. But together as Battles, the four took a huge chunk of indie music attention, noted for their hypnotic, inventive, fluctuating live shows as well as Mirrored‘s raucous, intensely musical, technically impeccable, and infectious songwriting.
All that seemed threatened, though, when Braxton announced that he was leaving the band to focus on his solo material. While the band’s previous output relied heavily on intricately layered and inter-meshed loops and instrumental pieces (to the point where it would be damn near impossible to qualify what portion of the music Braxton or any other non-Stanier member was responsible for), Braxton’s loopy, pitch-shifted vocals cast a big shadow on Mirrored. Then came the reports that the remaining three band members would invite guest vocalists to add some vocals to a handful of tracks, which seemed like a great idea, especially when it was revealed that Boredoms noisemaster Yamantaka Eye and icy Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino would be among them.
But the real story here is the large chunk of the album that sounds like so much of Mirrored. After a lengthy, metallic cloud intro, “Africastle” kicks the album into a familiar gear, mind-numbingly fast guitar lines chattering around the mix, some octaved up into chipmunk territory, others down to provide some bass. The base of the track is composed of chugging chords and sharp-as-nails kitwork. The looser, less cluttered outro plinks and plunks like an out-of-tune piano.
That said, they did leave room for change, both negative and positive. Lead single “Ice Cream” (which features Argentinean DJ Matias Aguayo) finds itself far too close to “normal” for someone who enjoyed the stranger aspects of Mirrored. The chiming, upper octave guitar loop and tonal grunting that comprise the beginning of the song promise something entirely different from what is delivered. The reggae-esque song that follows clicks the loop into a rapid backing track, burying it underneath Ayago’s unadorned lead vocals and relatively conventional rhythms and progressions.
Next, “Futura” sounds like the soundtrack to a math-rock version of Phantom of the Opera, bassy, affected guitar chords clanging out like a distant, submerged organ. A steel-drum/calliope treatment overtakes “Inchworm” immediately after, while the guitars on “Wall Street” sound as coked up as ’80s-era stock traders. And speaking of the ’80s, Gary Numan makes a cameo on “My Machines”, an unnecessarily dramatic tune full of more stampeding drumwork from Stanier. The brief interlude “Dominican Fade” features some Tortoise-esque clap-along polyrhythms, with the summery, Caribbean steel drum sounds roping together. Clocking in at just under two minutes, it’s fun and bright, but it wouldn’t have any impact stretched longer.
Makino’s turn on vocals takes an otherwise affectless upbeat, dance-friendly track and adds an oozing, smoky luster to it. Her rough-edged lead vocals fade and skim across the top of the song like a stone on a pond, her backing vocal cooing a perfect accompaniment. Altogether, the composition sounds un-Battles-y, the mathematically precise guitar pieces less in-your-face. That isn’t to say that the song is drastically different; it just lacks the punch that the songs on Mirrored seemed to intrinsically have. The abrasive edges and samples of “Rolls Bayce” are an interesting turn, the band far more willing here to push edges and go for the jugular.
That follows through on the one-two punch of “White Electric” and “Sundome”. The former keys in on Stanier yet again, his off-kilter, manic drumming speeding the song to a triumphant, video-game-end-credits-style joy. The latter features Eye, incorporating some of the weirdo tribal aesthetic of his regular band, Boredoms. There’s also what sounds to be an out-of-tune french horn, for whatever that’s worth. After a bit of fantastic, warped, noise band noodling, things get groovy. Eye’s voice gets some of the same treatments in which Braxton covered his performances: There are multi-layers, distortion, pitch-shifting. The dual guitars could get a little more play up front in the mix, but it’s tough to get compared to Eye’s singular, powerful style.
As a whole, the album has a lot of impressive musicianship, outstanding atmosphere, and interesting composition. That said, it lacks a lot of the pure, frenetic energy with which its predecessor pushed and pummeled (to be sure, there is no “Atlas” moment here). This may have a lot to do with Braxton’s departure, but we’ll never know for sure. What is certain, though, is that Gloss Drop is an interesting sophomore release from a band that left itself room for plenty of future growth. Now if only they could find a way to sign Eye on for a full record…