Battles’ bracing full-length debut, Mirrored, was a record that combined the hard rock punch of drummer John Stanier with a concoction of guitars, bass, and electronics courtesy of Ian Williams, David Konopka, and Tyondai Braxton. Like Stanier, Williams and Konopka had spent time in various rock bands and were branching out into the world of loops and synths. Braxton, on the other hand, was an experimental musician who was getting to play around in a rock ensemble, while providing some truly off-kilter, electronically altered vocals.
Braxton’s departure after Mirrored fundamentally changed the approach of the remaining trio. Battles’ second album, Gloss Drop, was clearly made by the same people, but without Braxton pushing from the electronic side towards the rock side, the band became even more focused on loops and grooves. Guest vocalists filled in the gaps on that record, and it was kind of a delightful mess of different styles and sounds. Nonetheless, it was an album thoroughly anchored by Stanier’s rock-steady drumming and Williams and Konopka’s tendency to use chirpy, squealing synth lines. Next time out, La Di Da Di found the trio dropping the vocalists entirely and digging still deeper into the loops.
This time around, it is Konopka who has left the band, so I went into Juice B Crypts wondering if his departure would alter Battles’ sound as much as Braxton’s. The answer is an emphatic, “No!” The band sounds much the same as they have on their previous two albums. Big beats, chirpy synths, and odd digressions abound. The guest vocalists have returned, to mostly positive effect, and the now two-piece Battles is still working in a weird but effective musical tableau all their own.
Six of these 11 tracks feature guest vocalists, and most of them end up being employed as another musical color within the song. The big exception is “Izm”, featuring Shabazz Palaces, which feels like a true collaboration between Battles and the Seattle-based hip-hop duo. Stanier seems to be relishing pounding away on a mid-tempo groove, while Williams’ glitchy guitar loop and bouncy synth figures float and flutter beneath Palaces’ rap verses, couched as advice to a “young hustler.”
On the other hand, “Sugar Foot” features Taiwan’s Prairie WWWW and Yes singer Jon Anderson. The song meanders, beginning with chanted lyrics from Prairie amid seagull calls, and moving into relaxed Stanier beat and a pair of spare synth loops. Stanier picks up the energy and complexity as he goes, eventually pushing into a full-on driving rock beat. One of the synth loops remains relatively static as Stanier continues to alter his beat every 30-45 seconds, while others (and sometimes guitar riffs) twist and change along with Stanier. But there’s always a bit of space on top of the mix, which is where Prairie WWWW sits in the song’s opening half and where Anderson steps in during the second half. Neither of them is singing any consequential lyrics. Both act as vocal tones to be manipulated in Battles’ loop system.
The effect is similar for “Titanium 2 Step”, possibly the biggest groove on the album. The drum and guitar riff is in two distinct parts here, and the tension and resolution between the two (and later the duo’s chopping and screwing of those parts) closely resembles something off of Mirrored. Vocalist Sal Principato’s role here is essentially that of a dancehall toaster, adding in asides and comments to fill in little gaps in the groove.
While other Battles albums have featured at least a couple of songs that pass the six-minute mark and push their trademark loops into dance mix territory, the longest song on Juice B Crypts is the relaxed “Fort Greene Park”, which clocks in at 5:46. It features a few different guitar lines from Williams and synths that are a bit more legato and less chirpy than the usual Battles fare. This track is dreamy, floating along for a full two minutes before Stanier comes in with a beat. Once he does, the song gains momentum simply by his presence, but it still counts as one of the most laid-back on the album. The only other song that matches this slower tempo is the 70-second “Hiro 3”, which fades in and then out like a snippet of a much longer recording. But the part that we hear is an ominous-sounding piano and guitar duet, backed up only by some quiet cymbal rolls from Stanier. Its oppressive mood gives it a much different feeling than “Fort Greene Park”.
This album also features some interesting multipart songs. It closes with “Last Supper on Shasta”, parts one and two. Both parts feature Tune-Yards on vocals but are very different. “Part One” has an actual melody and lyrics, as well as layered harmonies from Ms. Yards. It bops along for nearly four minutes before abruptly switching to “Part Two”, which pushes forward much more intently and features one of the album’s few identifiable basslines. It does share musical themes with “Part One”, though, that make it a recognizable relative. Tune-Yards’ presence here is much more difficult to pick out, as Stanier’s big beat dominates most of the song before it fades into a haze of piano chords, which turns into a slow, simple melody that quietly finishes the album.
…Unless you let the album start over, effectively looping it. Because then it becomes apparent that the piano finish is the same melody as the synth opening to the first track “Ambulance”. This intro, which lasts about 45 seconds, also includes a musical quote from Mirrored single “Tonto” and possibly other past Battles songs. But after this intro, the song settles into an uptempo synth and drum groove, which adds more layers as it continues.
That leads into the album’s other two-parter, which begins with “A Loop So Nice…” This track is all chirpy, high-end synths, and hi-hat for a good 30 seconds before a bass part and some snare drum join the sound. Even when the sound fills out a bit, it stays dominated by the hi-hat and high register synths, though. And then it turns into “They Played it Twice”, which drops the beat, adds singer Xenia Rubinos on vocals, and pushes the synths to their screeching limit. At least for 50 seconds, then the same synth and hi-hat and snare groove return, with the addition of Rubinos’ vocals adding color over the top of the synths. While it isn’t the catchiest song on the album by any means, it’s a fascinating illustration of how differently the same elements can be employed.
Juice B Crypts isn’t the type of album that is going to bring in a fresh new audience for Battles. The listeners that have stuck with the band since Gloss Drop are in for more of the same this time around. Battles’ music continues to be unconventional and sometimes harsh-sounding, but they also have an ear for catchy melodies. As usual, Stanier is a highlight, because here he gets to pound away at his drums and create interesting rhythms that don’t have to interact with the music in a traditional rock setting. I was a bit concerned to hear if Battles would work as a duo, but this record proves that Williams and Stanier are still full of weird and worthwhile musical ideas.