Tremolo-picked chords stealthily fade in and out, while a guitar, pitch-shifted to a piercing timbre, prickles the high register. Additional processed guitar lines gradually enter the mix, until the band erupts into a vigorous, festive jam. These are sounds that have characterized Battles since 2004’s EP C. “Africastle,” the first taste of the long-awaited new release, greets listeners with familiar sounds, but forgoes the band’s signature polyrhythmic theatrics. Whereas 2007’s Mirrored commenced intensely, and maintained a fairly consistent energy level, the new release Gloss Drop gently draws the listener in, and gradually escalates.
The departure of central member Tyondai Braxton has fueled much speculation regarding Battles’ future, largely because Braxton’s pitch-shifted vocal loops have come to characterize the band’s sound. It is important to consider, however, that prior to Mirrored, Battles were an exclusively instrumental band. Gloss Drop maintains the group’s signature musical style, but enlists an impressive array of talented guest vocalists to sing on certain tracks. The first of these is lead single “Ice Cream,” in which the math-rock outfit idiosyncratically channels reggae. Matias Aguayo’s blithe vocals insist upon a relatively jaunty vibe, resulting in the most “chill” Battles recording to date.
“Futura” employs Battles’ trademark stop-and-start riffage. Various staccato tones splatter in their respective patterns, sculpting negative space. New sounds emerge at key moments, until the song takes on massive proportions. Processed guitars provide layers of discordant noise that bend and tug at notes around the central melodic lines. The creeping progression is executed with masterful discernment, enabling the core melody to permeate and annex the listener’s mind.
At moments, the music on Gloss Drop evokes the idea of glitches in a primitive video game. The vaguely tropical-sounding melodies featured in so many Battles songs can, at times, become cloying and irksome. Their prolonged repetition, in conjunction with the accompanying discordant noise, can produce the frustrating sensation of being trapped in some skewed, virtual world. The triptych comprising “Futura,” “Inchworm,” and “Wall Street” is particularly prone to such effect. The steel drum refrain of “Inchworm,” conjures the laughable image of metalheads returning from a Caribbean vacation. In all three tracks, eerie melodies seep into the mix, exacerbating any already existing discomfort. The sound can become tormenting. Yet, one might argue that the music’s ability to provoke such a strong reaction, whether pleasant or not, is merely proof of its potency.
“My Machines” is the focal point of Gloss Drop. A sonic image of a marvelously hellish, technetronic futurity, the song establishes a context in which the entire album assumes a singular aesthetic. Stark, incisive, percussive tracks are switched on one by one. A deep, grating guitar chugs to the cadence of an alarm. John Stanier’s propulsive drumming locks the sounds into a frenetic groove, as if coordinating the various shifting gears of a mechanism. The immediate dance potential hinges on the audibly incongruous force of draconian repetition. Gary Numan’s voice, with its inextricable, new wave resonance, fashions Battles’ trademark sound in an entirely new frame, and divulges certain surprising, latent proclivities of the band.
In “Sweetie and Shag,” Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino’s languid voice hangs in the air seductively, sweetening the sound, and imparting a pop finish. The band indulges in its trademark polyrhythms, and feedback-laden guitars, yet, beneath Makino’s vocals, otherwise flagrant experimental propensities achieve an unanticipated, elegant subtlety. During the chorus, a slight strain in Makino’s voice complements the abrasive textures of the music, to remarkable emotional effect.
While the commercial aspects of “Ice Cream” and “Sweetie and Shag” manifest the stabilizing force of critical acclaim, there are sufficient left-turns to assuage skeptical fans. “Wall Street” is played at a seemingly unnatural pace, so as to convey a sense of rampant indulgence and excessive rashness. “Dominican Fade,” a brief, lighthearted diversion, replete with syncopated handclaps and tribal percussion, recalls the shorter pieces on Mirrored. “Toddler” revisits the open space of the album’s first moments, with piercing bleeps that gallivant and resonate. The sparse orchestration forces the listener to realize otherwise overlooked qualities of sound, with the unconditioned receptivity of the eponymous toddler. “Rolls Bayce” drops jarring drones over percussive clatter, and launches into a deranged, sci-fi stomp. “White Electric” pairs a Raymond Scott-esque electronic splattering with prog rock of the most ambitious vein.
“Sundome” culminates the album in aptly epic fashion, delegating Yamantaka Eye of Japanese noise rock cult phenomenon Boredoms. Guitars stammer in an odd time signature, over atonal horns, as dubby chants and stutters echo and reverberate. A driving bassline grounds the scattered noise, and 4/4 drums equip the music with dancefloor validity. A club-friendly octave-shifting refrain qualifies the emergent groove, while Eye’s tribal utterances accent the densely layered, polyrhythmic music.
Battles assemble most of their compositions from a relatively modest palette. What sets them apart from others is that they rely on truly unique sounds. A Battles song will, by default, feature pitch-shifted guitars that mimic steel drums. Unlike traditional sounds that have settled comfortably into listeners’ collective consciousness, Battles’ machinery is too alien to convincingly demonstrate its versatility. Consequently, a large portion of the album may seem to lack variety, although closer listening reveals that this is hardly the case.
Overall, Gloss Drop registers as a less focused record than its predecessor, largely because it explores a greater variety of sounds. The new album ranges in mood from jovial to apocalyptic. Clever, rhythmic experimentation is still a prominent feature, but less of a dependence than on the last record. Braxton’s innovative vocal treatments are conspicuously absent, and will surely be missed. Conversely, Braxton’s departure has forced the band to evolve its sound in various exciting directions. Collaborations with disparate vocalists have realized untapped potential, and allowed the music to assume a refreshing variety of unheralded forms. Gloss Drop may be a less solid and coherent album than Mirrored, but it is still a remarkably promising follow-up. As always, the music is cerebral, engaging, technically stupefying, and utterly original.