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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Battles: Gloss Drop


1) Africastle; 2) Ice Cream; 3) Futura; 4) Inchworm; 5) Wall Street; 6) My Machine; 7) Dominican Fade; 8) Sweetie & Shag; 9) Toddler; 10) Rolls Bayce; 11) White Electric; 12) Sundome.

With Tyondai Braxton out of the collective Battles in order to wage an individualistic battle of his own, the band loses some of the guitar dexterity — but, in fortuitous compensation, also dumps the annoying chipmunk vocals, replacing them with a few guest vocal spots (including veteran electronic rocker Gary Numan, among others), but mostly with nothing. Now they can lay a real serious claim to being real serious about what they are doing.

Let us try and unravel this step-by-step. First things first, they continue to have — and now they are moved right up front — Very. Loud. Drums. If we were to judge everything based on first impressions, the obvious thing to say would be that Gloss Drop is basically that Who album that Keith Moon had always wanted to make, only the others were way too tough for him to capture all the attention. Well, nobody here is too tough for John Stanier, who is filling up every crank and nook he lays his eye upon with crash-boom-bangs of Gargantuan force and Wilhelm Tellian precision. Eventually, it begins to get tiresome (fifty minutes of getting relentlessly bashed on the head can plant muted hatred even towards the awesomest of drummers), but it helps a lot if you decide to sit through the whole thing in two or three small portions.

Second, the overall difference between Mirrored and Gloss Drop is not quite as large as some critics decided to see it. Behind the drums, for the most part, we find the same «mathematically» laid out keyboard patterns that are more characteristic of typical electronic than rock music. 'Fu­tu­ra', or 'Wall Street', or 'Inchworm' — these sound like outtakes from Mirrored, no better and no worse than that album's general level.

Third, Battles prove their ongoing commitment to merging the accessible with the head-shifting by releasing 'Ice Cream' as their first single. Co-written with the Santiago-born Matias Aguayo, it is basically a Latin dance song gone mad — as if all the instruments somehow got out from under their masters' control and simply go on sparring with each other. There are so many overdubs and subtle volume level trickery (I believe) that it is impossible to cling on to one particular instru­ment or even one particular voice: in giving it a few tries, I almost literally felt the poor head swirling and splitting, and had to stop it immediately. They also give it a try on the poppy number 'Sweetie & Shag', with Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead contributing lead vocals (or, more precisely, phantom vocals), but that song has less stuff going on and thus, not such an immediate threat to one's psychic sanity.

None of this implies that we are about to gain a much better understanding of or appreciation for whatever the hell it is that Battles continue to do so well. The album as a whole, in my mind, would make for a perfect soundtrack to a documentary on cubism, what with the band's focusing so tightly on quasi-polygonic modelling of their music (and the geometry can be of an almost hel­lish complexity, but it's still geometry); but this still does not answer the question, since it is not to be implied that we actually understand a doggone thing about cubism.

Gloss Drop is louder, busier, more self-assured and dominative than Mirrored, which bothers me, because if this is the way I'm going to be dominated in the future, I'd at least like to know what the hell it is that domi­nates me? Do not trust any of the reviews that seem to pretend as if they know the answer. Okay, the Gary Numan-led 'My Machine' has a lot of industrial boom to it and may be decoded as, uh, eh, an apocalyptic technological nightmarish whatchamacallit. Okay, 'Africastle' does sound African in some of its rhythms and then becomes evil-gloomy in its last section ("castle", right? Fantasy-film medieval castle? Torture racks? Iron maidens?). Okay, 'Tod­dler' is one minute of rhythmless keyboard sweetness. Does that answer the question «Who are Battles and what sort of battles do they represent»?

Most accounts of Gloss Drop I have read do not ask questions. «Good fun», «cool grooves», etc., rule the positive energy waves, but I can neither feel the fun nor get in the groove. With this al­bum, Battles have veered much further into unknown territory than even King Crimson, whose «disciplined» sound was still very much rooted in the well-known rock idiom. That is their big selling point — wondering about this album is like wondering about an oddly shaped alien device dropped on the planet, without having the faintest idea about its purposes, all the while admiring its out-of-the-ordinariness. But even the alien device has got a purpose, goddammit, we just don't know it. Does Gloss Drop have a purpose? Or am I giving these guys way too much credit, over­stating their unusualness when, in reality, they are just having good clean fun?

Whatever the answer, I have never managed to solve a Rubik's Cube, but I deeply respect every­one who did, which logically leads me to a thumbs up for this album. Or, perhaps, it is just be­cause of the drummer guy. After all, nobody messes with that drummer guy — one bass drum punch out there is a solid equivalent of a kick in the head by a Clydesdale horse.

Check "Gloss Drop" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Gloss Drop" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Well, nothing important (quite frankly, I couldn't get my teeth into this album) but I just wanted to say that I'm with you on that Rubik's Cube thing. How the hell do they do it? I've actually watched a couple of people do it right in front of my eyes, and it still made absolutely no sense to me. They tell my there are patterns, but that doesn't really explain anything. Anyway, one side is all I ever managed.

  2. If I recall correctly there are a series of turns and movements you can make that can move any colour square to any place on the cube. Once someone learns them (not that I have, but apparently there aren't as many as you'd think) solving the cube becomes a piece of cake.

  3. Rubik's Cube solving is pretty simple, provided that you're able to memorize a few patterns.

    Also, since you brought them up-- do you intend to review Blonde Redhead?

  4. I'm fairly sure you haven't the faintest clue what you are talking about. You really do not understand this music or the point of it. Battles are the the perfect band to demonstrate your misunderstanding of music. It is not and never scientific it is always about a listeners emotional response

    1. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we give you Adrian "Peter Pan Ain't Got Nothing On Me" Denning! Long time no see.

  5. Hi George! Longtime reader here, thanks for the reviews. Longwinded question: I get the feeling that when you review music that strays a bit far from the rock/pop/blues/whatever template, you tend to review from a more 'intellectual' standpoint, as if trying to ascertain the 'intentions' behind the musicians in order for the music to make sense to you, whereas you seem to engage in a more straightforward way with pop and rock. I've noticed you doing this in your reviews for the Books (which I love) and Autechre (which I don't care for at all). I feel like you do a similar thing here on the Gloss Drop review, where you ask yourself what the 'purpose' of this music is, which seems like an odd question to ask of any kind of music if I think about what my answers would be for any music I listen to.

    Long story short: do you think 'usual' music has a specific purpose as opposed to music by bands like the Battles? Is it important that music has a purpose? Bear in mind that this is not a defense of the music (loved Mirrored, didn't like Gloss Drop much), I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Thanks!