Gloss Drop (Warp, 2011)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Battles is that, if I hadn’t heard tons and tons of chatter about their pedigree by now, I would have no fucking clue what to make of Gloss Drop. Perhaps the worst I can say is that I’ve tried to imagine knowing nothing about this band, and it’s really, really hard.
That’s faint praise and faint damnation alike, but I’ve never found it easy to relate directly to Battles one way or another – and I say this as someone who enjoyed the mechanistic impulsion of their A-C EPs and who found Mirrored an interesting, obscurely inspiring monolith of soft-focus serialist funk but never once managed to get through it in one sitting. Battles have a wonderfully unique sound, but it comes bundled with an undesirable, probably undesired Serious Art connotation – so that they seem, from outside and a little bit from in, to do with great deliberateness what might very easily have read as smart, technically precise mischief. (Case in point, their song titles: “Africastle,” “Prismism,” “Rolls Bayce,” “Ddiamondd,” “Futura.” Who names a song after a font without some lofty or low intent?)
Gloss Drop is refreshing on at least one level because it takes some wind out of those contextual cues. (Let’s admit that Tyondai Braxton carried a lot of Serious Art weight.) Not only does it go down smoother from front to end – a long 54 minutes, to be sure, but still – but I do less wondering about who they are and what they’re driving at and more admiring of how they manage to distort time so the short tracks often feel longer than the long ones, how their songs sort of snap-congeal into shimmery little trances out of deft rhythmic cubism and fuzzy pastel guitar barbs and this one frosted steel drum sound. Plenty of moves still feel pregnant with greater meaning, like the way they add a few superfluous themes to the very end of a track for no evident reason, but just as many come off as earnest explorations. The El Ten Eleven-covering-Kraftwerk intro of “White Electric” and the Trans Am-as-Tubeway Army smolder of “My Machines,” say, convey more let’s see what we can do, less look what we’ve done.
It’s a small difference and a completely subjective one, but it suits beautifully what I want from Battles: it suggests that we might be better off accepting this music, with its inconsistent menace and buzzsaw guitars and canary clockwork choruses, as one of those things where the truth will never be as interesting as the mystery; that we might stop saying “oh of course they did that because you know Ian Williams used to be in Don Caballero” and start enjoying the strange wonderland of sound without asking – no, without answering – any questions. Gloss Drop is the most self-sufficient world Battles have made yet, and a pretty good argument in favor of music that gets less and less interesting the more you know about it.back