Four years have passed since Battles gained significant limelight for Mirrored, a record that saw the underground supergroup boldly stride away from pretty much every other band in the field with their tense, mechanical brand of electronic rock. Lead single 'Atlas' endeared new audiences to their math-inspired riffage and nonsense lyrics, looped and manipulated to the nth degree, while the album gave a more in-depth look at a group at the top of their game, both creatively and in terms of performance. But while every musician had unquestionable command of his instrument, Tyondai Braxton always seemed to take centre stage. In live situations – four of which I was lucky enough to experience in 2008 and 2009 – the eyes were immediately drawn to him, juggling guitar, keyboard, recorded loops and vocal lines with jaw-dropping ease. So with the announcement last year that Battles and Braxton have 'chosen to follow their own musical paths' (that old chestnut), the band lost the closest thing they had to a front man.
When sitting down to listen to Gloss Drop for the first time, I tried to tell myself that this might not necessarily be a bad thing. That maybe Braxton was holding the other three back, that this could be a chance for them to shine. Disregarding the fact that I suspect many of these tracks still contain parts penned entirely by Braxton, it is simply not the case that his departure has been in any way beneficial. For all of its playful adventurousness, this latest offering has a fuzzy haired, silhouette-shaped gap that four guest vocalist slots are only partially able to fill.
Opener 'Africastle' is comparable to 'Race In' from Mirrored, building with layers of heavily affected guitar work before the super-human powerhouse drumming of John Stanier bursts in. A strong melodic construction and an even stronger start to the album, this is followed by first single 'Ice Cream'. Vocalist Matias Aguayo injects real personality into this track, guiding its skittish, jolly sentiment to its natural conclusion with suitably indecipherable grunting noises. To the untrained ear, it might sound like Braxton never left. Track three 'Futura' is equally robust, carried by a looming church organ and stunning interwoven guitars that squeal and glisten in true Battles style.
But elsewhere, the enthusiasm seems to wane. An appearance by Gary Numan on 'My Machines' is token and unmoderated, like the band were too in awe of his presence to critique and refine his contributions. Likewise, 'Sweetie & Shag' with Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead is laboured, contrived and perhaps the closest Battles have ever come to genuinely boring. These two guest appearances are tempered only slightly by Yamantaka Eye on closer 'Sundome', who evidently understands the need to give the instruments space to breath. The band's reluctance to take on another full-time member in the aftermath of Braxton's departure is understandable and almost certainly wise, and there is no question that this is a technically adept, well realised and urgent recording, but what seems to be a lacking is the je ne sais quoi that made Mirrored such a colossal debut album. It is trite and reductionist to attribute this entirely to losing a key member, but the real impact has been on the verve and soul of the music itself.
6Sam Walby's Score