BATTLES: GLOSS DROP (2011)
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.
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