By Mark Abraham | 2 June 2011
The first Battles album, Mirrored (2007), was something I would shake hands with and congratulate, inchworming my way out of actually saying something pointed about whether I’d enjoyed myself or not: “God bless you, Battles, for trying to climb this mountain, weighted down by the tangled cables of phrase samplers and a host of MIDI controllers and signal chain processors; only “Atlas” fully maps out the terrain I think you’re trying to conquer, but everything else is an intriguing travelogue that reveals just how difficult these kinds of journeys are.” “Inchworm,” like most of its counterparts on Gloss Drop, does not require the same wiggle room: the album ain’t perfect, but the songs within bubble with unrestrained excitement, making Gloss Drop the first Battles document I can say I unabashedly enjoy.
More potently, the members of Battles seem, for the first time, to be inviting me to enjoy what they’ve produced. From the bright pink chewing gum cover to the the ebullient music, Gloss Drop seems more witty than what the band has produced before, openly smiling at you rather than coolly winking between determined and calculated technical proficiency. It’s like the band is more relaxed, and so it’s everything Mirrored wasn’t, for me: snarky, sneaky, and reveling on that playful border where technique and electronics meet the possibilities of creating sound. Even the video for single “Ice Cream” is a pastiche of joyous, abstract sentiments, and not, as was the video for “Atlas,” a glorified photograph of a really bitchin’ selection of effects processors and guitar amps.
Now, let’s be clear: Gloss Drop is just as technically erudite as ever; that just doesn’t seem to be the sole point, anymore. For brief pre-Gloss Drop moments, like “Atlas,” when the band has managed to transform their dogged pursuit of funking up shifting time signatures and complex riffing into something tangible? That was always amazing to see. But I’d say Gloss Drop laps those highs in staggering fashion. Gloss Drop sublimates the technical requirements of the processes Battles employ into the expression of music that is viscerally fun. The fingerprints of the tech are no longer visible, I mean, so instead the only thing to focus on is the sound itself, and that sound is joyous.
Gloss Drop also offers, for lack of a better word, a swing that Mirrored lacked; the cold and calculated precision that marked songs like “Leyendecker” and “Tonto” is here massaged into the bubbling builds of funkish tracks like “Sweetie & Shag” and “Africastle.” Much of that credit should probably go to John Stanier, whose drums may have been more overtly impressive on Mirrored, but are all around more colorful on the new material even if said color manifests itself in far more subtle ways. And as I hinted in my review of Eye Contact, Gloss Drop also pulls Battles outwards, ameliorating their glistening math rock with a calliope of other sounds. Like Stanier’s drums, the guitar, keyboard, and sample work of Ian Williams and Dave Konopka are shaded and diverse track to track, but the actual sounds themselves seem to mesh together coherently, echoing the modern fusion of Gang Gang Dance. And, yeah, Tyondai Braxton has left the band, but the old call-and-response guitar work he’d perform with Williams has been capably replaced with Eventide pitched delays to the point where this distinctive sound is one of the most prominent and unifying features across the impressive palette the band deploys on Gloss Drop.
“Inchworm” is probably my favorite track here, but excepting “Futura” I think Gloss Drop is a pretty solid front-to-back listen. And even “Futura” doesn’t really disrupt that flow; it just seems to show off less ideas than the rest of the material, strange for the second longest track. But the rest is thrilling: closer “Sundome” manages, in concert with Yamantaka Eye, to pay homage to Super æ (1998)-era Boredoms while still sounding very Battles—no mean feat, I think. “Ice Cream,” the single, is simply the most purely condensed and giddy version of the Gloss Drop sound, while the other tracks all seem to range off into the tangential corridors suggested during “Ice Cream”‘s run time. Y’know: here’s your vanilla, and here’s the more adventurous flavors. In that way, Gloss Drop shows a band still well ahead of the curve in terms of how they perform music, and one that understands how an aesthetic can be stretched to its most experimental limit and retracted to a simple confection without a wide chasm between the two modes of expression. And because that sound is so engaging, Battles can finally hide the mountain of gear Mirrored so prominently displayed in the expressive potential of this better music.