Sunday, June 12, 2011

Battles' Trade-Off on "Gloss Drop"

If you could not tell from my previous post, I am an enthusiastic fan of Battles.  When Mirrored came out, it opened my ears up to an entirely new realm of musical virtuosity.  Today, I would call it a personal classic, and of course I have been looking forward to the follow-up with no small amount of anticipation.  Holding an album in such high esteem, however, causes a conundrum: do I really want more of the same, or am I willing to bend my expectations enough to follow the changes that will keep the band fresh?  This is especially problematic with a band like Battles, whose overt experimentalism keeps them dancing on the edge of accessibility.
Gloss DropOn their new release Gloss Drop, however, the problem was somewhat solved by the unfortunate exit of Tyondai Braxton.  Despite the fact that most of Battles’ repertoire is instrumental, Braxton gained the (perhaps misplaced) title “lead singer” due to his pitch-shifted vocal stylings on Battles’ previous “hit,” Atlas.  His contributions to the group extended far beyond vocals, however, and although I did not doubt that the band could continue without him, I felt that the group’s chemistry would suffer due to his departure. 
Battles has convincingly adapted to their current trio format, though, allowing them to sidestep the problem of following up Mirrored.  It’s the same band, but not quite the same.  This expertly filmed clip of Futura from blogotheque is a pretty intimate portrait of how Battles does what it does.

Ian Williams’ angular, erratic melodic concept has evolved far beyond the guitar looping approach he pioneered with Don Caballero, and now seamlessly includes samples and keyboards.  Dave Konopka’s soundscaping, in contrast, is nearly orchestral, and provides a compelling counterbalance to Williams while drummer John Stanier is the engine that drives the entire thing along.

The “driving” metaphor is intentional, because Gloss Drop feels “formula one” from the get-go.  Like Mirrored, it’s incredibly fast-moving, intense, precise, and conveys just a hint of reckless danger. Mirrored, however, exhibited a cinematic quality that is missing on Gloss Drop, which replaces this expansiveness with more rhythmic complexity.  The jury is still out on whether or not this is an even trade in the long run.  Gloss Drop sounds decidedly more “New Wave” than its predecessor (a perception perhaps influenced by a guest vocal appearance by Gary Numan), and my wife seems to innocently wiggle along when I have it on, so that’s a good sign. 

One final note concerning the guest vocal appearances: it is very difficult for a band to have any sort of visibility as a strictly instrumental outfit, and there are a few tracks on Gloss Drop that clearly address this issue.  The lead “single” is an infectious tune with a guest vocalist and an absurd video.

The ridiculous innuendos in this Atlas follow-up video seem to be taking sarcastic stabs at conventional media expectations: sex, violence, disjointed narratives, etc.  Although the guest vocal spot is pretty well done here, I can’t help but think that it, like the other guest vocal spots, float above Battles’ concept.  I don’t, for example, hear anyone being brave enough to plug their microphone into a wah-wah pedal.  There are many great avant-garde musicians out there that sing who could contribute to the band (one of which, Yamataka Eye, makes an appearance on Gloss Drop) if they had been open to the possibility of replacing Braxton.  This is, however, not the standard approach these days – musicians in a group generally attempt to cover more bases in the studio rather than add new members and incorporate their particular talents into the group.  Fortunately, the members of Battles are strong enough individually to rise to this challenge.

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