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Battles
Gloss Drop Kiran Acharya , June 9th, 2011 07:13

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Two big questions face Battles as they release Gloss Drop: how does it compare to the widely-praised debut Mirrored, and how do they fare now that Tyondai Braxton - the man behind their most obvious innovations - has left the band? Both are answered succinctly. Gloss Drop is a more playful and less condensed album, allowing the remaining trio to work at full stretch.

They don't dive straight in to every song, and on opening track 'Africastle' the most exciting moments are characterised not by virtuosity but by absence. It begins with a pulse, throbbing until John Stanier's drumming kicks in. From here it jerks and strides, then swoops and soars. After a rapid-fire drum roll that should, by rights, end with a cymbal bashing, we get a second's break and a single low note on the keyboard: plonk. It's momentary but thrilling, before a dramatic three-note closing riff. Again only the first two notes are underpinned by a drumbeat. That last note, initially unaccompanied, beckons you an inch closer each time.

Braxton's absence on vocals is redressed by four guests. The big name is Gary Numan, found amidst the dystopic, race-for-the-train clatter of 'My Machines'. Kazu Makino enjoys a cute and breathy turn on the springy 'Sweetie & Shag', contrasting with the oddest vocal of the lot: Yamantaka Eye on closing track 'Sundome'. Here it's as if Battles set out to cross Leftfield's 'Afrika Shox' with an ice-hockey arcade game. Gloss Drop is packed with ideas, but instead of clambering over one another the riffs, rhythms and basslines co-operate more gracefully, with a greater degree of harmony.

'Futura' is the best example of Battles' layered approach to song-building, and of what people tend to dislike about the band. It offers the hypnotic pleasure of watching clockwork in action, or the precise cause-and-effect displayed in those Honda television adverts from a couple of years ago. This is where detractors say that Battles are heartless, robotic, favouring delineated pictures of digital precision at the expense of more emotive watercolour blends.

But tracks like 'Futura' are not clockwork, and Battles aren't a MIDI band. To call Battles mechanical is to make the same mistake made by people who praised the chess-playing computer Deep Blue for defeating Russian grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Only a few appreciated Deep Blue's victory as a victory of computer programming and design. That is to say, a human triumph. While Braxton's departure might literally have forced guitarist Dave Konopka towards the front of the stage, John Stanier remains the steam in the engine: an exacting and inventive drummer who could, I'd wager, concoct more inventive patterns than any algorithm. Even the most mechanical-sounding Battles song has been written, not engineered.

Nowhere is this more evident than on 'Ice Cream', beginning with a chaotic jumble of absurd grunts from Kompakt Records' Mathias Aguayo and a scattered riff, creating the same happy anticipation that comes with watching a toddler wind the crank on a jack-in-the-box. The same joy, too: once you've seen the zesty, multi-coloured montage video produced by Spanish collective Canada, it's impossible to divorce the song from the exuberant visuals. If it doesn't make you smile, there's every chance you're the robot.

There are, however, comparative lulls. After the halfway mark, 'Dominican Fade' seems like an intermission, a percussive passage that's drifted in from the Caribbean Coast. It's pleasant but directionless when compared with the more dynamic instrumentals 'Wall Street' or 'Inchworm'. Similarly 'Toddler' amounts to little more than an assembly of peeps and chirps. But Battles are fond of this sort of thing, and 'Toddler' leading into the more forceful 'Rolls Bayce' recalls the way 'Prisimism' bled into 'Snare Hanger' on Mirrored. This re-emphasises their interest in the kind of automated improvisation that marked them out as innovators with the release of their first EPs.

And it's from there that we can see the band's development and strengths. They once corralled roaming ideas, and on their first album firmed them up into songs that suffered from a surplus of invention. Stanier has explained that as a quartet they often found themselves 'competing for real estate'. That's evident now that we have Gloss Drop. In places, Mirrored simply overdid it. Battles have undoubtedly suffered a loss, but they join the rank of charmed bands that have lost a key member then recorded a superior album.

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Alex
Jun 8, 2011 3:18pm

"Braxton's departure might literally have forced guitarist Dave Konopka towards the front of the stage"

Did you mean Dave, not Ian Williams?

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Continuous
Jun 8, 2011 6:39pm

In reply to Alex:

Alex,
The reviewer definitely meant Dave.
When Battles performed as a 4 piece Dave Konopka was always placed right at the back of the stage behind John Stanier, who was and is front and centre with Williams to his right. Braxton would have been on his left. With his departure Konopka has moved forward and more than adequately filled the space that was left.
I think one of Gloss Drops greatest strenghts is in this move.

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Graham
Jun 9, 2011 7:03pm

I've just listened to this album through for the first time.
i bought Icecream the day it was released and I haven't stopped raving about it since.
I had high expectations for the album, and wasn't the least concerned by Braxton's absence.
I haven't been disappointed at all. What seem like lapses or lulls in the album actually set you up for higher moments. One would be lesser without the other.
It's an amazing piece of work, and I'm sure (as with Mirrored) repeated listening will only serve to reinforce it's brilliance.
Roll on the 27th at the Institute in Brum

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ste
Jun 10, 2011 3:24pm

In reply to Alex:

no dave used to stand at the back behind the other three

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Carter
Jun 10, 2011 5:09pm

Great review. The album is, for lack of a better word, fun.

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Shaz
Jun 10, 2011 7:59pm

Good review of a largely disappointing album. I feel relaxed now that I hadn't pre-ordered it.

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Tim Russell
Jun 13, 2011 7:59am

It's a very different beast to "Mirrored", more accessible, less interesting, but as Carter says, it's a lot of fun. Pretty funky as well.

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wonderbrat
Jun 14, 2011 1:38pm

Funny thing, this phenomenon called opinion: I tried "Mirrored" in earnest when it came out, but I was immediately annoyed by what I considered to be inane and smurf-like vocals. I would have gladly bought the instrumental version because there appeared to exist some exciting music on that record. Thus, I am very pleased with the new album: to me it sounds like a plausible suggestion of what contemporary pop-music should sound like: intelligently crafted, funny, unpredictable and well-produced. The first song contains passages reminding me strongly of Blondie's first two LPs. The spatial appearance of the overall sound is interesting, it is close and vivid and bubbly without being invasive, it respects my eardrums and my body as something private that must not be tinkered with. (The sound of Ema e. g. assumes an intimacy I find offensive.)
Maybe soon I will be upset for not having bought Mirrored as an LP, because now I found access to the Battles' universe, like it required Dolittle for me to love and understand Surfer Rosa.

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John Calvert
Jun 19, 2011 7:36pm

In reply to wonderbrat:

a very well constructed response wonderbrat. But with all due respect, this: "It is close and vivid and bubbly without being invasive, it respects my eardrums and my body as something private that must not be tinkered with. (The sound of Ema e. g. assumes an intimacy I find offensive.)

....is the weirdest thing anyone's ever said on The Quietus.

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Michael Engelbrecht
Jul 21, 2011 10:16am

In reply to John Calvert:

One of the biggest disappointments of the year! Mirrored was great, this is crap.

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