Back in 2008, when they released their third album Dear Science, the world was justifiably TV On The Radio’s to take. The album was a bold statement as to the waters in which rock music should tread—sonically and politically bold—and it was also enormously fun. I saw TV On The Radio for the first time not long after, and the show was a heady carnival of funk and philosophy. They were staking a claim, unintentionally or no, to be the greatest band in the world. Continue reading Battles, a band with a capital ‘B’
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)
I mentioned a little while ago that one gig-goer’s reaction to the new incarnation of Battles was less-than-complimentary. Since then, I’ve watched the trio’s live session, recorded for La Blogotheque, and I sort of see his point.
“Ian Williams, on keys and guitar, looks louche at the best of times.”
At times, it feels like drummer-karaoke. There’s a lot of loops and samples being triggered, but the only constant visual appeal is John Stanier, on his kit, thrashing away like an absolute beast. He’s magical, and charming; the rest of the band, less so. Ian Williams, on keys and guitar, looks louche at the best of times, and in these performances he exudes a casualness that’s a bit of a turn-off, frankly. The camera lingers on him too often, which shows exactly how disinterested he approaches the live creation of these undoubtedly complex, multi-layered songs. Over on the other side of the stage, Dave Konopka does his best to fill in the gaps between prerecorded elements, with some interesting textural guitar work, but there are still yawning corridors of time in which there’s a fundamental disconnect between what the pair of them are fiddling with, and the music roaring out of the speakers.
“Atop, there are a dozen competing melodies, which chime and whir and whine through the song.”
That’s not a criticism of the songs themselves, fortunately. From what I’ve read, “Wall Street” looks to be a Gloss Drop highlight, and the evidence presented in this live performance does little to dispel the idea. These new songs appear to be more densely constructed, but they don’t descend into self-indulgence. “Wall Street” bursts out of a sparkling pool of fragmented guitar, with characteristically ricocheting drumming and intermittently groaning bass. Atop, there are a dozen competing melodies, which chime and whir and whine through the song. I suppose it’s closer in sound to some of Battles’s formative EPs than the more honed aesthetic of Mirrored.
The second song, “Futura“, is less hyperactive, and slithers in on a liquid groove. The first part of the song burbles with sludgy organs and detuned steel pans, the latter of which sparks Williams into action like nowhere else in the performance. There’s a lot of build-up, then a brief drums-only interlude, and then… more of the same, lurching composition. The song peters out with no clear conclusion—which is either a disappointment, or a sign of sophistication, depending on how postmodern one is. Me, I’m undecided.
I guess there’s good reason to say the band are “plodding along” if you watch these live performances. Maybe one expects too much visual excitement which, without Tyondai Braxton‘s method-behind-madness flailing around, doesn’t show up at all. What this means is that I’m really looking forward to listening right through Gloss Drop without any extra-aural distractions.
But I might not hit their live shows any time soon.
Previously, I’ve written about how my fear of avant-garde music was undermined by my diving headfirst into Battles. Now a trio, but still a supergroup of sorts, Battles are to release their second album, Gloss Drop, on 6th June, and all the signs suggest that it is an unintentionally easy listen. Surprising, given its troubled gestation.
The album opens with “Africastle”, the band not having given up on delicious song titles, and the song is an instantly stunning, shape-shifting composition. The intro suggests a rising, malevolent force, with Morricone-esque washes of guitar rattling beneath vaguely threatening pings. But the song quickly morphs: a lone thump of John Stanier’s bass drum, a cyclical figure played on god-knows-what instrument, and then we’re thrust into a giddy and thrilling passage which forms the bulk of the song. Whereas several songs on Gloss Drop feature turns from guest vocalists, “Africastle” is totally instrumental, and all the better for it, scene-setting what sounds like an otherwise esoteric collection of songs. At the 3:30 mark, the song turns back in on itself, with a spare and brutal bridge, but it seems as if the band can’t resist lightening the mood, and so this too drops out in the final minute, in favour of what sounds like a broken-down Game Boy telegraphing an Oriental motif over dry shards of synth and a rumbling bass drum.
What an odyssey, and it’s all over in less than six minutes, leaving the listener washed up on a distant beach, littered with mere fragments of the musical signposts we’re accustomed to. It’s great to have Battles back with us on Planet Earth, even if it’s only to beam us up into space.
I should probably mention that some people’s reaction to Battles Mk. II has been less than complimentary: Darryl Zero, over at The Night-Day Machine, said he felt “indifferent” by the end of a recent live show, and describes the band “methodically plodd[ing] their way” through the new song “Futura”.
I have a curious relationship with avant-garde music, in that I prefer reading about it than listening to it. Steve Reich and John Cage may be jolly bright and conceptual people, but their playfulness operates on a different plane from my brain.
Battles, the math rock supergroup, now reduced to a trio after the sudden departure of sort-of-frontman Tyondai Braxton, are to release a long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Mirrored. It is called Gloss Drop, and it apparently shows a more accessible side of the band, unafraid of poppy hooks. This doesn’t mean it will get played on the radio. Back in 2007, when I first heard “Atlas” (it was iTunes’s free single of the week, as I recall), I thought this was exactly the kind of cybernetic glam-rock people outside of alternative music might fall for. I suspect I was mistaken.
Anyway, way before Mirrored, Battles were a pretty difficult band to get your head around. But if you gave them more than even the time of day, they repaid you with the most skilfully arranged barrage of bewildering time-signatures, insect-like guitar interplay, and exotic noises. And, at their most avant-garde, onto the end of 2006’s EP C / B EP, they tacked on a nine-minute bender called “Fantasy”.
“Fantasy” takes as its single building block, a sample of Braxton beat-boxing, but with it, it creates an entire black hole that turns nine minutes into a lifetime. The song is austere, and doesn’t fool you with red herrings or stems of melodies that dissipate. No, “Fantasy” is relentlessly rhythmic, pummelling you into oblivion, or an aneurysm. Occasionally, a snippet of the sample gets locked into a kind of feedback loop. At other times, there are microscopic fragments of real drum sounds. Eventually, you really don’t care. Strangely, as painful as it gets, you never want the song to stop, either.
This is the age-old custom of the drum circle, updated for the ProTools generation, and it’s unstoppable. More to the point, if you step back and forget that it was crafted by a group of guys who had spent the previous two decades making music in the basic tradition of rock, you could easily confuse “Fantasy” for a work by Reich or some other notoriously difficult avant-garde composer.
There is an excellent interview with the remaining members of Battles here, written up by Simon Jay Catling on The Quietus.