If you watched Adam Curtis‘s excellent three-part documentary, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace“, you might know something about Richard Brautigan‘s idyllic dreamland of man and machine interfacing towards a common goal. When Tyondai Braxton, Ian Williams, John Stanier and Dave Konopka released their first LP under the moniker Battles, Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell foresaw a similar synergistic future. The language in her review of Mirrored was at once brutal and admiring: she wrote of “pitiless CPUs” and “hammer connect[ing] with skin”, but concluded that the band had “done more to extend the idea of a flesh-and-blood band enhanced by computer technology than anyone since the late, lamented Disco Inferno”.
Now the “bionic rockers” are back, but they’re a man down. Braxton left to concentrate on his solo work (he’s a budding composer in the classical tradition); the other three deleted his parts from the computer; then they rebooted the whole project; then they wrapped up the whole thing by inviting four guest singers from the outer reaches of music onto the mic. It’s quite a way to deal with a break-up—but Gloss Drop definitely doesn’t sound like a break-up album.
So what does Gloss Drop sound like? Outrageously technical music that’s great fun, mostly. The playfulness is writ large this time, so there are cartwheeling circus organs and smatterings of steel drums—or, at least, things that sound steel drums, but may in fact be processed samphire for all I know. It starts out majestically with “Africastle”, about which I enthused at an earlier date, and then wrong-foots us with the deranged pop of “Ice Cream”, a sunny and casual song to which people will swim, sunbathe and, yes, eat ice cream. The remainder of the album’s first half is more sludgy and dense, consisting in the haunted organ-drones of “Futura”, the tangled fireworks of “Wall Street”, and the industrial carnage of “My Machines”, which features a guest turn on the microphone from a whiny Gary Numan.
Then, things get more Caribbean. “Dominican Fade” lives up to its namesake: a brief, palette-cleansing interlude, it bounces steel drums around a loose calypso. “Toddler” is a more inscrutable diversion, shorn of the usual thumping drums of Stanier, who continues to be the backbone of the band at all other times. Completing the trio of contracted instrumentals is the intriguingly titled “Rolls Bayce”, which sounds like a fleeting drive through a nascent carnival. There’s a dancehall feel to the rolling rhythm, over which are interlaid a jumble of those pesky steel drums (they get everywhere!).
Finally, to close out the album, there are two more epic compositions, the latter of which is augmented by a further guest vocalist. “White Electric” begins in tastefully restrained style, but eventually explodes into Morricone-sized proportions, with chase-scene guitars rumbling through the mix. “Sundome”, featuring avantgarde babbling from Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms, is tropical and triumphant. More steel drums, surprise surprise, and again, we’re not sure if they’re emanating from a guitar or a cheese-grater or the big toe of Al Doyle. The first half of the song is more freeform, but it eventually morphs into a stricter affair which struts around a surprisingly simplistic rhythm, not so much hammered out as telegraphed by Stanier. Eye’s vocals re-enter, multi-tracked to sound like disc scratching, and then the whole thing peters out tantalisingly, riding high on good vibrations.
It is arguably pointless to make detailed comparisons between Gloss Drop and its predecessor, Mirrored: the earlier album arrived context-free, for me at least (Helmet? Don Caballero? These names meant nothing to me in 2007), and sounded like it had been beamed in from an alien planet. I will say this though: Mirrored also sounded context-free, in part because of Braxton’s mutated funhouse vocals, which resisted any form of interpretation from the listener. As with what I wrote about Explosions in the Sky, this was music onto which you could graft any emotion or mood you desired. “Tonto” might have evoked memories of long-distance flight for some, and sensations of extreme paranoia for others—but you can’t say the same thing for this set of songs. They seem rooted in more definite locations; less otherworldly, more terrestrial. “Sweetie & Shag”, for example, a really very lovely slice of fudge featuring vocals from Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino, is clearly assembled by an Earthling band, as opposed to the conscious supercomputer that you theorised could have been behind stuff like “Tij” and the enigmatic “B + T”.
All of this makes Gloss Drop less of an odyssey than what we’ve come to expect from Battles in all its incarnations. Mirrored once soundtracked a bus journey I took from London to Oxford, and it transformed the prosaic motorway idling into a warp-speed interstellar roller-coaster ride. Gloss Drop never reaches a peak, consisting as it does in two quite discrete halves, both of which could have made the basis of satisfying EPs from two different bands. There are catchy bits, there are heads-down fretboard fireworks, there are passages you could dance to, or which might form the building blocks of a serviceable chart hit. But there’s no complete immersion going on: the band no longer sound special, and that’s a shame.
Pick ‘n’ mix: “Africastle”, “Wall Street”, “White Electric”.
- Battles, methodically plodding along (misplacedswag.wordpress.com)
- Battles – Gloss Drop Premature Evaluation (stereogum.com)
- Ice Cream by Battles proves avant garde music can be fun: but who do they rate? (guardian.co.uk)