When Mirrored – Battles’ full-lenght debut album – surfaced in 2007, you’d have thought listeners and critics alike had been celestially touched, as high-heaped praise for the record ranged from “best of the year” to “music of the future” to “music from another planet”. Mentions of technology, complex rhythm changes, and singer Tyondai Braxton’s bizarre Lolliepop Guild vocals were unavoidable; and rightly so, as even now that album stands as one of the strangest, most unique, and ultimately most invigorating recordings of the past several years.
As profoundly as Mirrored took the Pitchforkian-overworld by surprise four years ago, Battles’ newest record, Gloss Drop, is primed to accordingly disenchant those hoping for another grand re-imagining of the musical canvas. After touring incessantly and paring down to a three-piece (after the departure of their aforementioned vocalist), the band has opted for the straightforward instrumental-with-occasional-collaborations approach. The result is a considerably more grounded affair that hits listeners with more rhythmic fastballs than trick pitches on tracks like the Kazu Makino-cameo’d “Sweetie & Shag”. Nevertheless, while Gloss Drop may not be as astoundingly new or unique as, say, Radiohead circa 2000 (Kid A being the measuring stick for all things musically groundbreaking), it surprisingly stands on its own next to the more ambitious Mirrored.
Or maybe it doesn’t – it really depends on how you look at the band itself. Battles’ career certainly started promising, with an inimitable debut album released in the highly e-pinionated world that doesn’t offer many bands a less-than-perfect first disc before being totally written off. Nevertheless, when you make as many year-end lists as Battles has, the ever-lingering sophomore slump is bound to trap you. With Braxton leaving the band over creative differences, onlookers had more than a little reason to begin doubting the three remaining members’ ability to keep the wheels on the bus.
Luckily for Battles, they have the paired benefits of having made a transcendent first album and playing bona fide instrumental/mathrock, a genre that doesn’t altogether require its bands to drastically change things up from record to record. What’s more, the band – both as a unit and as individual members – was known for its live prowess well before Mirrored’s release. Taken in that context, Gloss Drop is the work of singularly out-of-the-box jam band less focused on its legacy than on blowing the minds of its listeners, whether with the earth-pounding thrill of John Stainer’s drum kit on “Futura” or the jarring interplay of guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka on “Wall Street”.
Though a certain novelty found on Mirrored may be absent this time around, Gloss Drop is without a doubt the more listenable of the two discs; and with summer having already arrived with a vengeance in many parts of the country, the album’s pervasive afro-island jostle on tracks like the lengthy closer “Sundome” is a welcome addition to the band’s repertoire that is sure to kill on the road.