New York six-legged rhythmic juggernaut Battles are one of the most exciting and respected alternative bands of recent years and they return with their second album `Gloss Drop'.
The album ranges from lead track `Ice Cream', a "grunty, squelchy, jubilant freakout" according to the NME, and Radio 1's The Hottest Record In The World - a calypso tinged rhythmic juggernaut powering through the airwaves of Radio 1, XFM and 6Music, through to denser, more industrial tracks (`My Machines', featuring Gary Numan, is a prime example) - at times playful, at times hard-edged, but always unmistakably Battles.
Enough bands have lost members and gone on to greater successes for the departure of founding member Tyondai (son of Anthony) Braxton to, on paper, not significantly impact on the chances of Battles’ second album matching the acclaim of the New Yorkers’ remarkable debut of 2007, Mirrored. But the reality here is rather different. Although predominantly an instrumental ensemble, Battles’ breakthrough came with the Braxton-voiced (albeit effects-laden) Atlas, a powerful single which has since made its way into mass-media ubiquity. Without his presence – the human-after-all angle – Battles could easily be short an element which was so important in their emergence from the indie underground.
To combat this threat, the remaining trio – John Stanier, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka – have enlisted a cluster of guest contributors, ranging from Gary Numan to the margins-occupying likes of Matias Aguayo and Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye. Completing the vocal line-up is Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead, fellow New Yorkers with a penchant for pushing the indie-rock envelope. But her track, Sweetie & Shag, comes over like a Blonde Redhead song remixed rather than a Battles one with a new set of pipes at the forefront. Her voice is simply that recognisable, and it can only overpower the rambunctious rock around it. Sundome is rather more balanced, but the pseudonym-loving Yamantaka seems to have been given only an auto-pilot jam to work with, the closer lacking the energy of earlier efforts.
Everything on Gloss Drop is excellently performed – the players are seasoned professionals, and with Battles a going concern since 2002 there was never going to be any sloppiness on show. However, whether this set represents a significant step onwards from Mirrored is questionable. When tracks remain instrumental, attentions can wander, and arguably there’s nothing here with the immediacy of the vocal-free Tras single of 2004. White Electric should raise many a pulse, and opener Africastle does everything the fair-weather Battles fan wants from them: it’s technically assured, tremendously structured, and you can dance to it. But the basic formulas remain much as they were almost a whole decade ago.
Fine though the instrumentals are, one of the vocal cuts proves to be the most memorable song here. And it’s not the Numan number: My Machines is an overly busy affair that suffocates the electro pioneer with twinkling keys and chasm-opening percussion. It’s Chilean artist Aguayo’s Ice Cream – rightly this album’s lead single – that really shines: a dazzling four-and-a-half minutes of grunts and groans, chimes and clatter, pings and zings and bells and whistles and the kitchen sink, it’s every bit as brilliant a treat as its titular inspiration. That it’s the track here that most closely resembles Battles with Braxton in the fold is evidence enough that this band is missing a vital organ. Sadly, it would appear to be the heart.
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