Second albums rarely come as victorious as this.
The list of bands with offensively ordinary second albums is incredible. The pressure to match the dizzying heights achieved by overhyped or genuinely quality debuts often results in flat, major label-driven second efforts which sound strained, unnatural and fraught.
Certain signs pointed to this scenario with New York’s Battles. After the very public and not altogether harmonious departure of Tyondai Braxton and the large period of time between debut Mirrored and follow-up, Gloss Drop, you could have been forgiven for expecting the worst. Yet the sheer quality of their debut record suggested Battles had plenty more to give. The Klaxons, Battles are not.
Drummer John Stanier reinforced this during his time with Crack. Alluding to the split, he said “it’s so much easier making a record when everyone is on board and wants to be there.” Something in Stanier’s tone throughout this discussion suggests Battles as a four-piece probably wasn’t working quite as all members would have liked. Battles in their current incarnation, meanwhile, are very much as they’ll be staying for the foreseeable.
Gloss Drop, for want of a more concise description, is the sound of three guys on absolute fire. The collective release generated by a period of intense creation, and that little bit of turmoil, is belted out in such a fun and brilliantly barmy manner that it bears the sound of an exercise in real catharsis.
Despite the unhealthy sugar intake implied in the title, and Stanier’s suggestion that the album was constructed on the “sugar in American micro-brewed craft ales”, Gloss Drop is still unmistakably Battles. The seamless criss-crossing and blending of intense instrumentation until you have no idea who is playing and what remains a prominent feature. “85% of it was entirely new”, John tells us, “with the remaining elements very small ideas.” Though difficult to describe the record as a change in direction, there’s a freshness and hunger evident throughout which suggests that the loss of a member in effect created a new band.
A stand-out feature of the album is the brilliant prominence of the drums in its production. John Stanier’s carnivalesque, calypso drumming provides the first and foremost reference point for the rest of the sugar-coated madness. Make no mistake, what they create is an extremely percussion-driven sound. A reputation for sheer power and endurance forged as part of 90s riff-heavy alternative rock legends Helmet remains intact, but with countless new strings added to his bow. Stanier drives the record forward, allowing space for Ian Williams and Dave Konopka to work their magic over the top. If things were meant to get simpler when Battles reduced their members by one, they just didn’t.
John explains: “I wouldn’t say it was intentional, but this time around we used two different recording methods to add to the overall vibe of the record.” This variation in recording technique simple multiplies the complexity and creativity of instrumentation on show.
Gloss Drop most certainly has its poppier moments, most notably the insatiably happy Ice Cream with Matias Aguayo and the driving intensity of My Machines, a track graced by Gary Numan no less, but the math-rock credentials that cemented Battles as one of the most twisted and complex sounding bands in recent times remains as strong as ever.
The inclusion of a number of guest vocalists adds a fresh dynamic to the record. Their approach to vocals has always been distinctive, treated as a method of emphasis rather than a basis for a tune, given no more priority than a cymbal or a guitar tone. As such, taking on this range of guest singers creates a new variation between songs, giving the four tracks in question new impetus, stretching their sonic range. Only a band as unique as Battles could lose their singer, fail to replace him, yet still take their use of vocals to the next level.
John explains: “Mr. Gary Numan was definitely a fantasy choice of ours, but in reality it was quite easy for us to contact him. We met him while he was on tour in Boston. I still feel that he is an amazing artist with a voice that is incredibly soulful and quite unique. We knew we had four songs that really needed vocals on them so we decided to choose people on a song-by-song basis. What can I say? They all delivered way beyond our expectations. We have always used vocals as another instrument in Battles, which is why we’ve never had a lead singer. That being said, we’ve never wanted to be an instrumental band either.”
The imagery used on the record is incredibly striking, with the sweet goo adorning the album’s front cover and dollops of ice cream on the lead single clearly thought through long before the record was released. The saccharine theme, bright colours and childlike connotations these bring to the fore are strangely in tune with Gloss Drop as a whole.
John explains that “Dave once again handled the art direction for the album artwork. The cover is a non-representational reaction to our previous release, but it does work incredibly well with the sound we employ on the record.”
That sound has, reassuringly, transferred itself to the live arena. A full-on, gripping assault, referring to Battles as ‘tight’ is to almost do them a disservice. They display a flawless unity. John Stanier is clearly confident in the potency of what he and his cohorts provide in the flesh, describing the Battles live experience as “like opening a bottle of vintage Burgundy and drinking the entire bottle while smoking unfiltered Gitanes … outside, of course.” Their recent gig at Bristol Trinity was a sweaty indoor melee of fun, utterly rammed with appreciative fans of all ages, the multi-faceted nature of their sound allowing room for much more than just the scenesters and the quality of the sound emphasised by a bass-kick which literally hurt you chest. Their set at Glastonbury was a similarly packed and pounding affair.
As a base for their music, the picture Battles paint is coloured in beautifully by their continued presence on Warp records. Sharing a home with the likes of Aphex Twin, Hudson Mohawke, Boards Of Canada and !!! has undoubtedly helped them, a range of artists whose combined output makes Battles’ back catalogue seem almost normal. A label with such an extraordinary array of advanced artists and an ethos that affords their acts time to flourish is exactly what any band worth their salt craves in today’s quick-fix, quick buck, quick attention span musical climate. It’s a partnership made in heaven. John reinforces this when he states that “Warp have been in incredibly supportive of us from day one … allowing a freedom most artists only dream of.” It certainly shows.
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