By: Brady Lavin
It certainly seems that bands are getting harder and harder to categorize these days, what with genre lines becoming as hard to find and as blurry as Bigfoot. People tend to resort to saying a band sounds like a recipe where the ingredients are other bands, like “Incubus mixed with Cage the Elephant, if Incubus was fronted by Wayne Coyne and wrote lyrics like Ben Gibbard.”
For some reason, New York City band Battles defies such vapid characterizations. They often get lumped in with the catch-all category of “Experimental Rock,” but that describes their sound as well like “Comedy” describes, say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. That is to say, it is a completely inadequate description.
With their second album, Gloss Drop, the trio, comprised of guitarists Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and drummer John Stanier, constructs ever-shifting instrumental tapestries of rhythmic oddness using a dizzying variety of sounds. Each song on the twelve-track album usually begins with a very simple idea, like a repeated melodic idea or even just a pattern of two staccato guitar chords. From there, the imaginations of these three musicians run wild with the aid of loopers and samplers, adding on flurries of guitar runs, tectonic synth bass, and all manners of bloops and bleeps that are brought together into a cohesive whole.
Although guitarist Ian Williams comes from a “Math Rock” background with math-y pioneers Don Cabllero, where he was at home in all sorts of weird time signatures and off-beat rhythms, Battles tends to stay in common time. They stay focused on the forceful driving rhythms of Stanier, who used to play for alternative metal band Helmet. Stanier uses a sparse drum kit, but drums like a mechanical beast with something to prove, anchoring any unexpected melodic idea to the unmovable granite of his primal beats.
Gloss Drop is more driving and head-bobbingly groovy than their full-length debut, 2007′s Mirrored, yet doesn’t lose an ounce of the experimental edge that makes Battles so exciting. This is probably the most surprising thing about the new album, especially considering the departure of a significant driving force in Tyondai Braxton, guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist in 2010.
Braxton had been the group’s “singer,” contributing heavily processed vocals for a number of songs on Mirrored, although they were never really in the fore-front, preferring instead to use the vocals as another color in their expansive palette. To fill that void, Battles brought in some guest vocalists, using their talents in a similar fashion.
On Gloss Drop‘s lead single, the ever-playful “Ice Cream,” they brought in Chilean singer Matias Aguayo, whose quirky and lighthearted vocals mesh perfectly with the quirky and lighthearted looper-fueled landscape crafted by the band. “Ice Cream” is one of the many optimistic, joyously dancey tracks on the album, including the goofy (in a serious way) epic album closer, “Sundome,” which features the babbling, shouting, and occasionally singing Japanese noise rock vocalist Yamantaka Eye.
This album isn’t all happy and playful, however. Battles are the masters of juxtaposition, butting heavily ominous sections right against the brightness of songs like “Inchworm”. Using this, they take the rock band format further than it normally goes, painting detailed and vivid imagery with their wealth of sounds. The imagery really comes out in “Wall Street,” which begins with a hectic yet bouncy stroll through a crowed city. This stroll quickly becomes a race, leading down darker alleys, trying to escape from the unknown demons and wraiths giving chase, and ultimately climaxing in what certainly sounds like an monumental battle scene.
All that imagery and juxtaposition and tapestry-weaving is great, but it wouldn’t be nearly as magnetic to listeners if it weren’t accessible. Yes, oddly enough, this largely instrumental, weird rock dance of an album manages to have fairly wide appeal, the same way any instrumental song has ever been a hit (think “Wipeout” or any Santana song without a singer). Gloss Drop is dripping with melody, and that’s what REALLY makes it so tasty. While short riffs and motifs make up the landscapes of Battles’ songs, the different instruments and sampled tones always seem to link together to create an overall hummable melody in every song.
That’s what sets Battles apart. They have the incredible technical prowess. They have the equipment and the knowledge and experience to get any sound out of any instrument. They have a superb, solid drummer. But so do lots of bands that aren’t nearly as good. The marriage of Battles’ quirky pop sensibility and composing skills have made for an instrumental album that will get stuck in your head and make you dance, whether you like it or not.