Continuing to Fight the Good Fight
The cover of Battle’s 2007 debut album Mirrored pretty much summed up the point of the band for me. Enclosed in a lighted room with mirrors on the floors was a bevy of musical instruments and equipment: drums, keyboards, guitars, amplifiers. It would seem like an apt choice of cover art for a band that was largely instrumental, and tended to use gibberish voices in a highly processed, sped-up manner, making them an instrument in and of themselves. It would thus seem that you can sometimes judge a band by its cover.
I’ll be blunt. At first, I didn’t really get the point of Battles and why they were being lauded to high heavens around the web. I picked up the record (literally, I snagged a vinyl copy) a year after it had been released after hearing a few cuts off it that I had downloaded, and I guess I did so primarily because this seemed to be a group worth figuring out, though any reference to their sound initially baffled me. However, at some point in my musical journeys, I discovered prog rock that existed outside of Canada’s Rush, as I began buying up used vinyl copies of albums by Yes, early Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to further my own musical education, and then everything seemed to click into place.
In a sense, Battles is the double-aughts version of a progressive rock band, featuring virtuoso musicianship pretty much unheard of in indie rock circles. All that was missing were lyrics about gnomes and fairies and the ilk. Battles was a band that was looking backward as much as they were looking forward, and it all began to make a heck of a lot more sense to me under that reflective prism.
That brings us to the sophomore album and yes, I had to wonder where Battles would go from Mirrored. That record captured a particular style of post rock-cum-prog, and my fear was that there would be a temptation to repeat the formula and do the same thing twice. Happily, with Gloss Drop, this is not really the case, although the driving musicianship and some of the trademark whimsy of Mirrored shines through. Gloss Drop is not merely a sequel to Mirrored, it’s an album in its own right, one that incorporates world music on a somewhat prominent basis, and one that sees the band move more in a pop-oriented direction.
For example on Gloss Drop, you get a couple of actual songs with lyrics that aren’t delivered as a sonic incantation, and I would predict that one of them—“Sweetie & Swag”, which features a guest vocal turn from Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino—is so relatively straight-forward and catchy that it might actually become a huge hit for the band if it’s released as a single. This change towards some vestige of commercialization is even evident in the cover art, which features what appears to be silly string melted into a vast pink blob that could be a stand-in for cooked brains. In other words, the art suggests a glop of pure populist candy.
Some of this change and focus of the band might have to do with the fact that singer and guitarist Tyondai Braxton departed the band on amicable terms last summer to focus on his own solo career. That has forced the remaining members of Battles—which include guitarist Ian Williams (formerly of Don Caballero and Storm and Stress), bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka (ex of Lynx, and the designer of Gloss Drop’s cover art) and drummer John Stanier (formerly of Helmet)—to reportedly re-record parts of Gloss Drop and farm its vocals to outside sources for the first time.
It’s hard to say whether Braxton’s departure had a profound direction in how Gloss Drop finally came to fruition, but his absence is notable in that his trademarked brand of ping-pong vocal gibberish is virtually absent from the proceedings, save for guest vocalist Matias Aguayo’s take on the lead single “Ice Cream”, which is punctuated with all sorts of grunts and groans sprinkled like candy toppings on the mix. True, he eventually has lyrics to sing and the structure of the song is actually pretty uncomplicated by Battles standards, but you would be hard pressed to understand what he’s actually singing as he’s buried fairly low in the mix, which would give ammunition to the concept of buried, indistinguishable vocals—a Battles trademark—still being a remaining force.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here a bit, considering that Gloss Drop has a beginning that’s worthy of note. Whereas Mirrored came bursting onto the scene by “racing in”, the start of Gloss Drop begins with some rolling spaghetti western guitar that gathers like a tumbleweed in the desert for a good 90 seconds or so. Of course, the rest of the band kick in not long after that on opener “Africastle”, the title hinting at the world beat influence that has seeped into this album. Since Gloss Drops is a Battles release and all, the melody of the song shifts inward and outward, taking all sorts of cinematic twists and turns.
Gloss Drop doesn’t come swooping in and barreling headlong into the future with all sorts of whistles and vocal effects that “Race: In” punctuated in its opening shot on Mirrored. That said, it’s worth noting that a little snatch of the melody of “Race: In” briefly creeps into the proceedings at about the five-minute mark of “Africastle”, before petering out and naturally leading into “Ice Cream”. If “Africastle” is the quasi-follow up to “Race: In”, it does so by building on a foundation that has only a brief flash of the predecessor in its construction. It’s clear from the outset of Gloss Drop that Battles isn’t really interested in repeating much of the formula of Mirrored, except in the most tangential of ways.
“Futura”, the third track, continues with the Battles tradition of songs like “Atlas” in that it has a head-bopping slinky rhythm to it, though it slips and slides all over the place as though the band is performing on a sand dune with their footing sliding out from underneath them. There are also some fugue-like organs that add a sense of dread to the track, before giving way to some Caribbean-inspired keyboards that sound like steel drums. The song is butt-ended against the mid-tempo “Inchworm”, which carries forward a whimsical theme and has an almost calypso feel to it. “Inchworm” is Carnival music in the truest sense, though it is naturally bent out of shape like silly putty in the capable hands of the musicians here. Still, it’s joyous and upbeat, and a natural progression from the material on Mirrored.
And things get crazier from there. “Wall Street” is faster-paced, crashing in with a heart-pounding beat, and is a candy confection of pure bliss. There’s some “whistling” effects created by keyboards here, and you get the impression that this is to fill the hole left by Braxton’s departure. Overall, it’s a jittery, rock-steady track that’s guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.
This leads into one of the more straight-up cuts to be found on Gloss Drop: “My Machines”, which features vocals from none other than early ‘80s New Wave icon Gary Numan. Featuring cascading drums that fill the room, a dirty funky bass line, and retro keyboards, the song proves that Numan serves as the perfect foil for this piece of pop. In fact, his attendance is a tiny, wee bit distracting because, hey, this is Gary Numan of “Cars” fame. Overlooking that, if truth be told, his soaring voice is ideal for the track, though he seems a bit underused as he disappears two-and-a-half minutes into the four minute jam. Still, “My Machines” has potential for a future single, in an album that is chock-a-bloc with songs memorable enough to stand on their own.
Following that is the barely two-minute “Dominican Fade”, in which keyboards that once again sound like steel drums make an appearance. However, the song’s utility here is the same as “Prismism” on Mirrored: to act as a bridging gap to the next track, which, in this case, would be the aforementioned “Sweetie & Swag”, which is arguably the best thing to be found on Gloss Drop. It’s a delectable slice of sweet pop with its booty shaking bass line and knack for melody. As noted above, I predict big things for this song. It’s the one item that finds itself on repeat on my iTunes, and marks a mature turn for a band that has aspirations above and beyond being experimental.
Speaking of experimental, “Toddler” is just that: a barely-there keyboard-only track that barely eclipses the one-minute mark. This is followed by “Rolls Bayce”, which is another short burst of keyboard theatrics, a sort of soundtrack to a broken-down amusement park ride, against a military marching beat. These two songs are perhaps the only points on Gloss Drop in which you can breathlessly mouth the word “filler” to. Meanwhile “White Electric” feels a little bit like a Mirrored hold-over, just with the weird vocal tics deliberately deleted from it, though it does feature a Tropicana-infused breakdown that would lend some credence to the fact that this is not merely just a throw-back.
Finally, the album ends on “Sundome”, which features a guest vocalist turn from Yamantaka Eye of Japanese noise rock band the Boredoms. The song is another bright and bubbly stab at world music infusion with a dubby keyboard line rubbing against Eye’s particular brand of nonsense.
Gloss Drop is a sprawling, ambitious album—a trait it shares with Mirrored. I’m not sure how I feel about the presence of real lyrics for the first time, even if they are largely discernable. While it might be a way of moving forward for the band, it does have the whiff a little bit of “The Suits” coming in and dictating that Battles actually deliver something resembling a hit song. Still, Gloss Drop is the sound of a band forging its own identity and delivering on the promise initially unveiled on their previous album. While Gloss Drop doesn’t bow you over as its predecessor did (at least, once it hits you) in terms of its innovation, it is, however, the more listenable of the two. There’s an ebb and flow to Gloss Drop with songs seamlessly merging into one another, which might be a sign that Gloss Drop is the more meticulously crafted of the pair of records—an album made as an actual “album” as opposed to being a collection of thematically linked songs.
Gloss Drop is an impressive record: impressive for both its sense of experimentation and its attempts to be polarizing in that it is a whack of a lot more commercial. That, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, can only mean one thing. There’s going to be a boatload of new fans that finally “get” Battles for the very first time with the emergence of Gloss Drop on the scene.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More