City Paper is not for tourists
Released on a British electronica label in 2007, Battles’ debut album, Mirrored, wasn’t your typical American post-rock record. For one thing, the keyboards were as prominent as the guitars. And frequently, multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton pitch-shifted his vocals up several octaves for a sound that was more cartoonish than human. I have a colleague who refers to Mirrored as “that chipmunk record.”
Granted, the New York-based band underscored those traits with a satisfying wallop of crypto-metallic arpeggios and rock-solid beats, courtesy of guitarist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier. But at the time of Mirrored’s release, what seemed most forward-thinking and attention-worthy was Battles’ frontman, an aspiring composer in his own right. Braxton left the group in August 2010, and it’s easy to imagine his former bandmates then asking themselves, “What’s the point?”
If they entertained any doubts, it’s not apparent on Battles’ second full-length, Gloss Drop, which finds the band working successfully as a trio. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some help. One collaborator is Chilean techno-pop musician Matias Aguayo, who sings on Gloss Drop’s first single, the hooky and genuinely funky “Ice Cream.” The song’s somewhat lurid video suggests that Aguayo, who sways and grooves with an apparent disregard for hipster insouciance, would make an even better frontman than Braxton. He’s a better vocalist, too, which is to say he doesn’t rely on pedal-hopping mumbo jumbo to get through a song. Neither does British new waver Gary Numan, who contributes to the surprisingly aggressive “My Machines.” On that song, Stanier pummels like he once did with alt-metal trailblazers Helmet.
Though two other guest vocalists appear—Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino on “Sweetie & Shag” and Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye on “Sundome”—Gloss Drop is mostly an instrumental effort that owes much to Don Caballero, Williams’ vocal-free math-rock act. In 1999, the now-defunct Pittsburgh band slimmed from a quartet to a trio, with Williams employing electronic loops to fill the gap. He performs a similar feat on Gloss Drop. At times, the album is dense, but if you watch a performance of the manic “Wall Street,” for example, you might see much of the heavy lifting done by laptop or sampler.
Battles wouldn’t be Battles without this kind of multi-tasking. But the sleight of hand—aided by guitarist-bassist Dave Konopka—can sometimes lend an air of unreality to the proceedings. Marked by a catwalk beat and a melodramatic synth, “Futura” could easily be mistaken for the work of a DJ. And there are plenty of other reminders that the genre-hopping trio is on the same label as IDM vets Aphex Twin and Autechre (see the squiggly “Toddler”). Even “Africastle,” a post-punk take on Nigerian afrobeat and a not-so-distant relative of Don Caballero’s “Haven’t Lived Afro Pop,” has a pop sheen that seems more appropriate to techno than rock.
In that sense, the title of the new album is probably an example of braggadocio, rather than a reference to something that’s been deleted. The only thing that’s missing is Braxton. And, judging by the completeness of Gloss Drop’s electronic-rock fusion, the three men who currently make up Battles are doing fine without him.