It’s been 4 years since Battles’s stunning debut Mirrored came prancing and squealing into my life. 4 long years without new Battles. To be fair, there was more than enough going on in that one album to keep me entertained for nearly half a decade, but that didn’t stop me being on tenterhooks for any inkling of when my favourite quartet of quirky New York experimentalists would return with new material.
And then I heard news that struck mortal fear into my heart; Tyondai Braxton, Battles’s robot-chipmunk vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and pretty much driving force behind the band, had bid the band adieu. Not to disrespect the other members, but I feared the worst for Battles as an entity at that point, wondering how long it would be before I chanced upon the dreaded news that they were no more.
So what a relief when, earlier this year, Battles dropped (with a touch of gloss of course) Ice Cream, their marvellous first single off second album Gloss Drop. I was in this song’s thrall from the very first listen. It just beams pure unadulterated joy all over my face every time I listen to it and is, without doubt, the most fun song of 2011 so far… a bold claim I know and I apologise to Dumbo Gets Mad, The Beastie Boys, The Strokes and Tune-Yards if I’ve in any way offended you. I love everything about Ice Cream, from Matias Aguayo’s grunts and groans that propel the song into its thrusting climax of an intro, followed fast by the twitchy understated kick-in, and then just the way it isn’t ashamed to let its repetitive jittery rhythm ride it out for the next four minutes. “Tyondai who?” I asked myself.
So what about the rest of Gloss Drop? Well, just by scanning the album track-list one notices that Battles have filled at least some of the hefty void left by Braxton with other, very well judged guest slots. There’s Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino popping in for a bit of sultry crooning on Sweetie and Shag (definitely the most conventional pop song Battles have ever put their name to), the madcap ravings of Yamantaka Eye on epic closer Sundome, and even electro-pop legend Gary Numan spouting about My Machines on the song of the same name… an (un)subtle nod towards Cars you reckon?
All the above songs showcase a far sunnier, light-hearted and, dare I say, accessible Battles than on Mirrored. And this frivolousness is the general mood you get from Gloss Drop, even beginning with that strange strawberry stuff on the cover that I just wanna take a big bite out of. In fact, lots of the sounds on this LP sound like they’re coming out of an ice cream van that’s doing a quick cheery tour of your neighbourhood. I’m not joking, check out Rolls Bayce or Sundome if you don’t believe me.
And the guest vocalists are crucial to Gloss Drop, adding much-needed variety to an album that is two thirds instrumental. I have nothing against instrumental tracks whatsoever, but there is a danger of my concentration dipping at times on here, particularly when three lengthy instrumentals run back to back in the first half of the album. Each of the songs are captivating enough on their own (especially Wall Street) but when knitted together I do notice my attention wandering a tad. Maybe that’s just me.
However, lots of the things that made Mirrored such a stand-out album are still there. Battles are still an impressively busy band, with endlessly intricate interplay that sounds like its all being improvised on the spot, the layers building upon layers building upon layers, and John Stanier’s passionate drumming as ever pounds and puffs it along nicely. The reason it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of Mirrored, for me, is there aren’t any grand instrumental pay-offs to match the likes of Atlas’s mid-song guitar solo or Tonto’s surging climaxes. And, I’m sorry to admit, I do feel some of the instrumentals could do with Braxton’s cartoonified vocals just to add that final cherry to these very delectable cakes. But I need to get over that.
In a weird sort of way, the loss of Braxton puts Mirrored on an even loftier pedestal than it was already, because now that album achieves a one-off status as the only Battles album to parade his unique electronic tones. At least they haven’t had to worry about making that album again. Battles have been forced to move on, to adapt and evolve, and they’ve come back as a shinier, glossier, and much tighter new organism. And such is the original nature of their sound and talents, there really is no limit to what they could come back as next time. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 4 years to found out.
Ch-Check It Out If You’re Partial To – Mirrored; astounding interplay between instruments; summer, sun and ice cream; weird, indefinable strawberry flavoured shit; songs that DON’T have Alvin and the Chipmunk vocals; one of the best drummers in the business; being nostalgic for Gary Numan
Fantastic Track – Ice Cream (Featuring Matias Aguayo)